When should the media keep secrets?


David Rohde, the New York Times reporter, escaped the Taliban over the weekend, which is surprising because we didn’t know he’d been kidnapped seven months ago. It was the second time he’d been kidnapped in a war zone. In 1995, he was taken by Bosnian Serbs (photo above is a 1995 Getty Images photo after his release).

Buried several paragraphs into the Times’ story is this nugget:

Until now, the kidnapping has been kept quiet by The Times and other media organizations out of concern for the men’s safety.

“From the early days of this ordeal, the prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases, officials of several governments and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times. “The kidnappers initially said as much. We decided to respect that advice, as we have in other kidnapping cases, and a number of other news organizations that learned of David’s plight have done the same. We are enormously grateful for their support.”

You can see what’s coming next, right?

Did the Times — and 40 other news organizations who knew (and which ones were those?) keep a story out of the newspaper out an ethical standard of conduct? Or was it because it was their reporter or a guy in their business?

The answer may lie in the math. According to the Times, “Mr. Rohde, along with a local reporter, Tahir Ludin, and their driver, Asadullah Mangal, was abducted outside Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 10.”

Two escaped — Ludin and Rohde. Three minus two, leaves one behind, whose future is just as endangered, it would appear, by publicity about the kidnapping. If there was concern about the life of a kidnapped person, why publish the story now with one person still being held?

There is no editor’s note attached to the story to explain the double standard.

“You have to respond in the way that puts the person who’s been kidnapped in the least vulnerable position,” Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz. “Trying to second-guess the decision by the New York Times to withhold that would be unfair.”

Would it? If only we could get Mr. Mangal’s answer. (He was reported by Rohde to have joined the Taliban)

Update 5:26 p.m. “I think that is a weak spot in the underbelly of the decision making in these cases. We show a preference for one of our own in journalism generally by holding back a story or elements of a story compared to how we might cover the kidnapped oil field worker or diplomat or tourist. In those cases, we might not bring as serious a deliberative process to how we’re going to cover it,” the Poynter Institute’s Bob Steele told the Christian Science Monitor.

  • dfhjr586

    Double standard? Sure. Had it been US troops or private contractors, their distraught and crying wives and children would have been all over the front pages. What bleeds leads, unless the press wants to protect it’s own.

  • Bob

    We all know that many of the media are quite good at equivocating, rationalizing, and making exceptions for their own questionable conduct/decisions. This is merely the latest example. Yep, there’s a double standard here, and clearly the driver’s life is expendable from the NYT’s point of view.