A Matter Of Professional Courtesy
A long time ago, I wrote about the conflict between citizenship and the modern self-conception of journalism. I was critical of journalists who felt that somehow they were above the shared obligations of citizenship, and that their obligation was only to, as Mike Wallace would put it,
"...[whatever] story they were there to cover."
That issue is about to get an interesting wringing out, as it turns out that a courageous NY Times reporter was kidnapped at the Pakistan/Afghanistan border last fall, was held hostage by the Taliban, and recently - with amazing pluck and luck - escaped into the welcome arms of some nearby US soldiers.
Now that's a great story; not only an amazing drama in the kidnapping, and adventure in captivity, and now one with the happiest of endings.
But we weren't told it until the story was over. Joe Strupp in E & P, explains that all of the professional US media kept a lid on the story
...you didn't hear about it for the past seven months, in the Times or any other mainstream news outlet. That is because Times editors sought what amounted to a news blackout, citing Rohde's safety.
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Only a handful of Web sites and blogs--for more than half a year -- noted the incident, it remained out of mainstream news. It appears other news outlets that knew of the abduction adhered to the Times' request.
Even when the Times won five Pulitzer Prizes in April, including one for international reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan that essentially honored Rohde's among others, the paper had to bite its collective lip.
When E&P became aware of the kidnapping several months ago, Editor Greg Mitchell and I discussed the issue on several occasions, but declined to report. We talked to journalism ethicists and editors or reporters at other top outlets for guidance. When approached about the matter, several Times editors, including Executive Editor Bill Keller, were candid (off the record) about the situation, but with a request that we maintain a blackout.
That was in this case the right thing to do, the actors in the media felt. Strupp says:
As Keller said today on the Times' Web site, the paramount importance was for Rohde's' life and the belief among those aiding the paper, and his family, was that publicity could do more harm than good. "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," he said in the story today.
And Greg Mitchell adds, at Huffpo
I wonder now if a great debate will break out over media ethics in not reporting a story involving one of their own when they so eagerly rush out piece about nearly everything else. I imagine some may claim that the blackout would not have held if a smaller paper, not the mighty New York Times, had been involved. Or is saving this life (actually two, there was a local reporter also snatched) self-evidently justification enough?
The problem, of course, is that this was largely a matter of professional courtesy.
Because it's not the first time; when a CBC reporter was kidnapped last year, the media did the same thing
Fung, who was on her second stint reporting in Afghanistan, was kidnapped from a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul while there reporting for a story she was working on. She was taken to mountains west of the city and kept in a small cave for 28 days.
News of her abduction was kept secret and the CBC and other media outlets did not make public the fact that she had been kidnapped. Upon her release, CBC publisher John Cruickshank said:
"In the interest of Mellissa's safety and that of other working journalists in the region, on the advice of security experts, we made the decision to ask media colleagues not to publish news of her abduction. All of the efforts made by the security experts were focused on Mellissa's safe and timely release...We must put the safety of the victim ahead of our normal instinct for full transparency and disclosure."
Some journalists, such as Michèle Ouimet, a columnist with Montreal's La Presse, questioned whether the Canadian media showed more solidarity toward Fung than it did for freelancer Amanda Lindhout, who was kidnapped in Somalia last summer. Ouimet wrote:
"Journalists are the first to invoke the public's right to information, but they become awfully sensitive when it comes to one of their own."
Do a NY Times search for "kidnapped Afghanistan" and you'll find this January 2008 story about an American woman and her driver
who'd just been kidnapped, this September 2008 story about an Afghan official who was kidnapped in Pakistan
, a November 2008 story about a French aid worker who was kidnapped in Kabul
Now that doesn't mean they cover every kidnapping -just that they cover some.
And that's not to mention the national security stories they happily and proudly ran (the Swift program, a perfectly legal program for tracking international financial transactions which they uncovered, among others).
I've got two massive problems with this.
The first, and obvious one, is covered in the Fallows piece I cite above, after Mike Wallace has explained that he'd stand by and roll tape as a guerilla force ambushed and wiped out an American patrol, because - in his exact words:
Didn't Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? "No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"
A member of the US military responded:
A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform, jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell looked at the TV stars and said, "I feel utter . . . contempt. " Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces--and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. The instant that happened he said, they wouldn't be "just journalists" any more. Then they would drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield. "We'll do it!" Connell said. "And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get ... a couple of journalists." The last few words dripped with disgust.
And I can imagine how, when Rohde's saw the uniforms of the US troops and knew that meant he was now safe, his heart must have lifted. And what's wrong with that, of course is that he wants - as the Col. Connell suggests - to be able to claim sanctuary from his countrymen. Now I don't know Rohde's work, and I'm not going to claim that he's remotely where Wallace claimed to be while sitting in the comfort of a videotaped seminar. But his institution is. And that's a problem to me. Because it was US soldiers who gave Rohde's sanctuary, not some mercenary force fighting in the name of the NY Times or international journalism.
The other problem is, if anything, more serious. And it is the simple fact that we are increasingly living in a society that plays by Ottoman rules; meaning that what the rules are depend - of course - on who you
are. That's not something we will survive for long, and simply put, it needs to be exposed and stamped out anywhere we see it.
So I'm glad that the NY Times and journalists could sit on an exciting story to help save one of their own. In the future, will they do this to save some random civilian, or some US soldier?
« ok, I'm done now