The New York Times Kidnapping Dilemma
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:
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.
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
...Even though this topic defies hard and fast rules, it is essential
that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff
...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
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
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.