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July 1, 2009, 7:30 a.m.

Was the NYT wrong to conceal David Rohde’s kidnapping? Yes.

It’s been more than a week since New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped from his captors in Pakistan, so maybe now is a good time to try and look dispassionately at the massive coverup that prevented news of his kidnapping from being reported for more than six months — a coverup that included not just 40 or so mainstream media outlets but Wikipedia as well, with the personal help of founder Jimmy Wales. Raising such ethical issues seemed somewhat crass in the days following his miraculous escape (although that didn’t stop some observers, including Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, from being early critics of the coverup). But those issues deserve to be talked about in more detail.

For the record, I don’t know David Rohde. From all accounts, he is a wonderful friend and colleague, not to mention an excellent reporter who has a great deal of experience working in troubled areas. All of which is — I would argue — completely irrelevant to the issue at hand, namely whether the New York Times and its senior management were right to conceal evidence of his kidnapping, and whether the editors at dozens of other outlets were right to go along with this plan.

I would argue that they were not, and that if anything the coverup has made things harder not just for future kidnapping victims such as Rohde, but for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets as a whole.

The Times’ rationale for concealing the kidnapping, according to executive editor Bill Keller and columnist Nicholas Kristof), was that if Rohde was seen to be valuable — by virtue of being written about in the Western press — his kidnappers might kill him to make an example of him. This latter possibility might as well be known as the Daniel Pearl scenario, since that is what many observers believe sparked the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter in 2002. As Alan S. Murray, the Journal’s online executive editor, said in a response to me on Twitter following Rohde’s escape: “Went through this with Danny Pearl; human comes 1st.”

Is there a chance that Rohde would have been executed if the media hadn’t concealed his kidnapping? Perhaps. There’s always that risk with unstable terrorist groups, regardless of what negotiating tactics are pursued — and I would venture a guess that David Rohde knows that as well as anyone, since he has been kidnapped before. So did remaining silent about his fate save his life, as so many people have suggested since his escape? There’s no evidence whatsoever to support that, other than the emotional response felt by many of his fellow journalists, and in fact there is some evidence to suggest that all the kidnappers wanted was money.

As Kelly McBride has argued, employing what amounts to a sophisticated conspiracy to prevent news about Rohde from appearing publicly anywhere — including the fiercely independent Wikipedia — creates an obvious double standard. Journalists, including those at the New York Times and other media outlets, routinely report on people who have been kidnapped by terrorists, without any obvious qualms about how that reporting might or might not affect the chances that they might be released or escape. But when it is a journalist who is held, the process changes completely. That’s a clear case of favouritism, and it makes the entire industry look bad.

POSTED     July 1, 2009, 7:30 a.m.
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