Ransom Notes

Was the NY Times being hypocritical when it suppressed coverage of its journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban?
By ADAM REILLY  |  February 12, 2010

1002_rohde_main
FREE, FOR NOW: David Rohde, seen here in a 2009 appearance on Charlie Rose, was kidnapped and released by Bosnian Serbs 1995. He was later kidnapped in 2008 by the Taliban.

LISTEN: David Rohde at Harvard's Shorenstein Center (mp3).
Over the last two decades, reporter David Rohde has covered some of the hairiest clashes between the Western and Muslim worlds: the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica (he won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the tragedy for the Christian Science Monitor); attempts by the US military to keep the peace in Afghanistan and Iraq (which he covered for the New York Times, the paper for which he now works); the shameful abuses at Abu Ghraib. But while reporting from Afghanistan two years ago, he became, for the second time in his career, an unwilling participant rather than an observer. On October 29, 1995, Rohde had been arrested by Bosnian Serbs. And then in November 2008, Rohde and two Afghan colleagues were en route to an interview with a Taliban commander when they were kidnapped.

The Times worked to secure Rohde's release while spearheading a largely successful effort to keep his situation out of the media spotlight. But when Rohde made a dramatic escape in June 2009, the Times' response to his situation became a case study in journalistic ethics.

Some observers argued that, in the wake of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's abduction and beheading, the Times simply had to act as it did. Others insisted that, however dire the circumstances, no news organization should be in the business of suppressing information rather than reporting it — especially when that news organization has previously reported on similar stories that didn't involve its own personnel.

What does Rohde think himself? Judging from his remarks last Thursday — when he gave the Joe Alex Morris Jr. Lecture at Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism — the Maine-born writer is still struggling mightily with the issues involved.

On more than one occasion, Rohde — who's currently collaborating with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma to formulate guidelines for dealing with journalistic kidnappings — forcefully defended the Times' approach. "The general consensus among security experts and hostage negotiators," he noted, "is that it's better to keep these cases quiet, that making a case public raises expectations of high demands and will prolong a case. . . . My argument would be that the media routinely withholds information that will endanger the lives of innocent people. If a mob informant testifies at a trial, we don't put their name in; when an American military unit has an embedded reporter along, they don't disclose the details of where they're reporting."

As the evening progressed, however, Rohde struck a more ambivalent note. Later in the lecture, Shankar Vedantam, a Nieman Fellow from the Washington Post, noted that the press also ignores manifold arguments against reporting. Terrorist attacks, for example, invariably get major play, even though their high-profile coverage gratifies the perpetrators and encourages similar violence in the future. How, Vedantam asked, had Rohde wrestled with this tension?

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  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Business, Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Nieman Foundation for Journalism,  More more >
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