Topic: Media

The New York Times Kidnapping Dilemma
(7/7/2009)

When the New York Times finally published the dramatic story of Times reporter David Rohde, who escaped from the Taliban, which had kidnapped him 7 months before, its story included this:

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

The Times revealed that it persuaded other news organizations, including a blog that had been ready to break the story, to withhold it from the public. It even persuaded the on-line reference source Wikipedia to keep information about the kidnapping off of its pages. Now, it is hard to argue with the effort to save a kidnapping victim by avoiding publicity, especially in a part of the world where captured Americans have been beheaded on television for propaganda purposes. But the Times has an integrity problem here. In the past, the same paper has put American undercover personnel around the globe at risk by publishing information that the government asked it to keep secret. It has revealed other kidnappings. Yet the paper felt it could and should change its creed of “All the news that’s fit to print” for the welfare and safety of one of its own. Indeed, it spearheaded what can only be called a multi-media conspiracy to withhold the kidnapping story from the public.

Either the news media must report the legitimate news without regard to consequences, or it should weigh the results of its potential reporting according to a subjective analysis of what is desirable. I am not comfortable with the second option, which is a betrayal of journalistic ethics and gives the media far more power than they deserve or are worthy of wielding. Journalists should let us know what has happened and is happening, as accurately and as objectively as possible. They are not supposed to control events by withholding or manipulating reports.

The Times released photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq, knowing that it placed US military and others at risk, but it conspired to bury a story when a member of its own "family" was at risk. This apparent contradiction raises questions about whether the news media can be or ought to be trusted as an objective seeker of the truth and communicator of facts, if indeed it still is. If the premiere American newspaper will filter news reporting for the welfare of just one man it regards as special, how do we know it would not do the same to accomplish another objective, such as electing a candidate---a candidate for president, for example, who would end an armed conflict and save many lives. Why wouldn’t such a paper bury news that threatened a policy the paper’s staff or ownership favored, especially if it viewed the policy as a matter of “life and death”?

This is a serious ethical issue that goes to the heart of how the media sees its obligations. By itself, any action taken to protect the life of David Rohde, or any kidnap victim, is thoroughly admirable. But we cannot examine this in a vacuum. The action was taken by the premiere U.S. newspaper, which has always insisted that it is worthy of our trust to deliver the news without influence, conflict or bias. Thus it represents a willful failure to abide by the paper’s own stated ethical guidelines and principles, such as...

...The Times gathers information for the benefit of its readers.
Staff members may not use their Times position to make inquiries for any other purpose...they may not seek any advantage for themselves or other...

...Even though this topic defies hard and fast rules, it is essential that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias....

...Therefore staff members who develop close relationships with people who might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise must disclose those relationships to the standards editor, the associate managing editor for news administration or the deputy editorial page editor. In some cases, no further action may be needed. But in other instances staff members may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage. And in still other cases, assignments may have to be modified or beats changed. In a few instances, a staff member may have to move to a different department — from business and financial news, say, to the culture desk—to avoid the appearance of conflict..

The Times published these, which are included among their many ethical guidelines, to assure readers that the paper is committed to fulfilling the highest standards of integrity in the news gathering and publication process. Question: Was the Times actively working to suppress the reporting of a foreign kidnapping of a high-profile U.S. reporter, including working to keep the story off open resource websites, consistent with these standards as they are generally understood?

Absolutely not. That’s obvious, isn’t it?

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Times did the wrong thing. All laws, rules and guidelines will eventually encounter situations where they don’t work, and this may require individuals and organizations to treat such situations as anomalies, and knowingly violate the rules. The Times obviously decided that Rohde’s life dictated just such an exception. That’s valid---IF the paper would have done the same for a kidnap victim who wasn’t a Times employee. The problem is that the paper couldn’t make an objective judgement, because it had an immediate conflict of interest. This wasn’t just any human life. This was a New York Times human life. If the Times would have done the same for any kidnapping victim; indeed, if the Times is prepared to develop a policy regarding kidnappings consistent with the way they handled Rohde’s peril, then it acted ethically, and even courageously. But we don’t know. Quite possibly, even the Times doesn’t know.

I have my doubts, and here’s one reason, picked up by a sharp-eyed reader of the Wall Street Journal. When the Times finally printed the story, a section read...

Mr. Rohde, along with a local reporter, Tahir Ludin, and their driver, Asadullah Mangal, was abducted outside Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 10 while he was researching a book. . . .The driver, Mr. Mangal, did not escape with the other two men. The initial report was that Mr. Rohde was in good health, while Mr. Ludin injured his foot in the escape. Until now, the kidnapping has been kept quiet by The Times and other media organizations out of concern for the men's safety.

Got that? The driver Mangal is still being held captive, but now that the Times reporter has escaped, the story is apparently fit to print. And if the driver ends up dead, well, I guess “the public had a right to know.”

That is too harsh, no doubt, without knowing more. Still, this is an unsettling issue, and we can only hope that the news media engages in some serious examination of its implications. There are some who have said and written that if a life was saved, the coordinated news media and internet effort to withhold this story was the right thing to do. The Ethics Scoreboard says that if that is the confident verdict of those who are supposed to be the guardians of our free speech and free press, there is reason to be concerned.

We may have misplaced our trust.

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