Media Agreed to Stay Silent on Kidnapping of Reporter David Rohde

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

There were times during the kidnapping ordeal of New York Times reporter David Rohde when his boss wavered in his determination to suppress the story.

"We agonized over it at the outset and, periodically, over the last seven months," Executive Editor Bill Keller said yesterday. "Of all the subjects we discussed with the family, that was the one we discussed more intensively than any other: Should we change strategy and go public?"

Keller decided against it, and he was aided by silence from at least 40 major news organizations -- including, after a personal appeal, al-Jazeera -- that continued until yesterday, when the Times confirmed that Rohde and an assistant had escaped their Taliban captors in Pakistan. Keller consulted not only government experts but also other news organizations that had been through similar experiences, and there was "a pretty firm consensus," he said, "that you really amp up the danger when you go public. . . . It makes us cringe to sit on a news story," but in a life-or-death situation, "the freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish."

Still, the unusual arrangement raises questions about whether journalists were giving special treatment to one of their own. "It certainly could appear that way, but it's more complicated than that when a human life is at stake," said Phil Bronstein, former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. "It does involve a news organization keeping quiet and asking others to keep quiet. What shocks me is that it was so successful."

John Daniszewski, an Associated Press senior managing editor, said that "it is not the most comfortable position to be in. Your instinct is to publish what you know. But we felt there was just too high a risk something would happen to him." Daniszewski said the AP also withheld news around the same time when a staffer for a nongovernmental organization was briefly kidnapped in Afghanistan.

Rohde's family expressed doubt at times. "There were maybe one or two points when the frustration was starting to mount," and some relatives said "maybe we have to try something new because this isn't working," Keller recalled. But, he said, "I don't know anyone who believes the Taliban is particularly impressed by international opinion."

This was not Rohde's first brush with danger. In 1995, while reporting from Bosnia for the Christian Science Monitor, Rohde told his editor he was going to search for mass graves in Bosnia and would be driving a red Citroen sedan. He was later detained in Bosnian-Serb territory.

"Please have the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo pressure the Serbs if I disappear," Rohde said in an e-mail, adding that a report he had filed on the mass graves could be leverage: "If you have not heard from me by Tuesday, run this story in Wednesday's paper. If I am arrested, I believe the publicity of this story will increase pressure on the Serbs to release me."

Faye Bowers, his former Monitor editor, said: "He's an intrepid reporter. He gets obsessed with finding the truth. I wouldn't say he's a cowboy. He's certainly careful about what he does."

Rohde won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his Srebrenica massacre coverage and joined the Times that year. He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer this April for Times coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the prospect of which made Keller nervous that the story of Rohde's captivity would be deemed irresistible and someone would write it. "We drafted a story and some statements so we'd be prepared if it broke, but it didn't," Keller said.

After the Italian news agency Adnkronos International reported the kidnapping, it was sporadically mentioned by such blogs as Little Green Footballs, the Jawa Report and Dan Cleary, Political Insomniac. Michael Yon, a former Green Beret, said from Thailand that he "sat on it" for months and in March "just did a small item because it was pretty much out there" online. "There's no way I would've done that if I thought it increased his jeopardy." Keller said the Times contacted such bloggers, and in each case, "they took it down," as Yon did.

Mainstream news outlets held the line. Marcus Brauchli, The Washington Post's executive editor, said he discussed the issue with his deputies after talking to Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira. "We obviously would always err in favor of the safety of the reporter," he said. In the eyes of kidnappers, "someone may go from low-value capture to high-value capture by virtue of publicity. . . . I would hope we wouldn't treat anybody's life any differently if there was a safety issue involved."

In several previous cases, kidnapped journalists have drawn substantial coverage, either because their captors made demands or their families or employers thought the public spotlight would be beneficial.

When Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was abducted in Baghdad in 2006, her editors and family sparked what became intensive international coverage until she was released nearly three months later.

When Fox News's Steve Centanni and a cameraman were seized by Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip that year, Fox broadcast a tape from Centanni's brother pleading for his release. Both men were let go two weeks later.

When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2002, the paper's editor appealed for his release and made public an e-mail he sent to an address said to be used by the kidnappers. Confirmation of Pearl's murder came less than a month later.

Sometimes news involving journalists is reported in low-key fashion. After North Korea arrested two Current TV reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, on spying charges March 17, the television station, co-founded by Al Gore, said little publicly, and media coverage was sparse. The women were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor June 7.

With no firsthand information in Rohde's case, news executives deferred to the Times. "You have to respond in the way that puts the person who's been kidnapped in the least vulnerable position," said Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University's College of Communication. "Trying to second-guess the decision by the New York Times to withhold that would be unfair."

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