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After Reporters’ Escape From Taliban, Media Weigh Ethical Questions

June 22, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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New York Times reporter David Rohde and an Afghan journalist escaped a Taliban compound after being held since November, surprising many who had not been aware of the kidnapping. Times executive editor Bill Keller and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute discuss the story.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, two stories on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan: a journalist’s escape and the drug war.

Jeffrey Brown has the journalist story.

JEFFREY BROWN: After seven months in captivity in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, New York Times reporter David Rohde and his Afghan translator escaped their Taliban captors Saturday and made their way to a Pakistani army base.

The 41-year-old disappeared November 10th en route to interview a Taliban leader outside of Kabul. While working to win Rohde’s release, New York Times officials had withheld news of the kidnapping, fearing publicity would put him at greater risk.

Rohde has reported from Afghanistan off and on since 2001. That year, he spoke on the NewsHour about the dangers of covering the war there.

DAVID ROHDE, New York Times reporter: You end up just relying on what you can see with your own eyes. And you try to go to these places to see what’s happening so you can provide accurate reporting, and that’s, unfortunately, what led to our four colleagues being killed. That’s all you can do in these kind of situations.

And there are many rumors here, and you need to go chase them down. It’s just basically luck, in terms of how these things happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was the second time Rohde had been taken hostage. The Serbian army imprisoned and interrogated him for 10 days in 1995 after he uncovered evidence of a massacre in Bosnia.

And joining us now, Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, and Kelly McBride, who teaches and writes on journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida.

Mr. Keller, take us back to last November. What was David Rohde reporting on when kidnapped? And what can you tell us about who took him and what they wanted?

BILL KELLER, New York Times: David was working on a book about the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and he, to complete a chapter he was working on, he wanted to interview a particular Taliban commander outside of Kabul and arranged to do that.

He, I think, knew that there was some risk involved, because he did leave behind a note suggesting various people who should be contacted if he didn’t make it back, but he also said in the note that he had, you know, done a fairly careful calculation, decided that this guy was OK, and that the trip would be safe.

Information about the kidnappers

Bill Keller
The New York Times
What I can tell you or what I'm willing to tell you, honestly, is very little. I mean, we've just made a decision that talking about who did what, who decided what, who advised what during this time simply contributes to the playbook of kidnappers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what's known about the kidnappers and what they wanted?

BILL KELLER: What we believe is that the guy who he set out to interview, the Taliban commander, grabbed him, his translator and driver, and then eventually turned them over to the Haqqani family, which is one of the major Taliban organizations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what can you tell us about these months of captivity? What kind of -- who was in contact with the kidnappers? Was that you, the family, the U.S. government? And what kind of negotiations or talks went on?

BILL KELLER: What I can tell you or what I'm willing to tell you, honestly, is very little. I mean, we've just made a decision that talking about who did what, who decided what, who advised what during this time simply contributes to the playbook of kidnappers. You know, they're -- and potentially puts both our reporters and other people's reporters in the field in greater danger.

I can tell you that we had sporadic contact with David and indirectly with the kidnappers. In the early days, we had a couple of phone calls from David -- the family did, actually -- and then those sort of dried up, our suspicion being that the kidnappers were wary of using telecommunications because it made it a lot easier for the U.S. government Predators to home in on them. Later, we had less frequent and more indirect communications.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have said that no ransom was paid. There were some reports today...

BILL KELLER: No ransom was paid.

Rumors of a ransom payment

Bill Keller
The New York Times
There was a lot of discussion and debate. I mean, you know, we're in the news business, and we hate sitting on a story. But sometimes we do.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were some reports today that the Times was willing or able or at some point talking about paying up to $5 million. Are those accurate?

BILL KELLER: You're going to read a lot of stories. Some of them will be wild stories. And even to correct misinformation, we're just not going to talk about that. It's not worth the potential risk to other people working in the field.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me flesh that out a bit more, just the decision that you made early on not to report on the kidnapping. Explain the reasoning for our viewers behind that. And how much discussion and debate was there at the paper about doing that?

BILL KELLER: There was a lot of discussion and debate. I mean, you know, we're in the news business, and we hate sitting on a story. But sometimes we do. I mean, sometimes we do it because the military or another government agency convinces us that, if we publish information, it will put lives at risk. In a variety of kidnapping cases, for other news organizations -- where the victims were employees of other news organizations or other nongovernmental organizations or government organizations, we've withheld information for exactly that reason.

The best advice we had from others who have been victimized by this, experts who consult in hostage-taking situations, government officials, was that publicizing the case would increase, rather than decrease the risk for our guy.

And so, you know, with -- not easily and not comfortably, we decided not to report it. And we asked other news organizations to do likewise. Almost without exception, they supported us.

Agreeing to withhold information

Kelly McBride
Poynter Institute
I don't think that there's a playbook for handling this type of story. However, I think you -- as a journalist, you have a set of loyalties. And your first loyalty is to your audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kelly McBride, I want to bring you in right on that, because just as Mr. Keller says, other organizations went along. Now, how unusual is that? What kind of guidelines or rules are there in situations like this that you see? Or is it always ad hoc?

KELLY MCBRIDE, Poynter Institute: Well, it's not always ad hoc, but it's incredibly unusual that almost every -- in fact, every major news organization in the world agreed to withhold the information for this particular story and one that makes me pretty uncomfortable.

I don't think that there's a playbook for handling this type of story. However, I think you -- as a journalist, you have a set of loyalties. And your first loyalty is to your audience. And so I actually got a call about this from an A.P. reporter last November when the kidnapping happened who was alarmed at the decisions that were being made and was writing a story about it.

And he said at the time, I don't think we'll hold this for long. I think that it's a temporary thing.

And when we talked about it, we talked about, if you look at this on a continuum, at one end you have, "Publish everything you know and endanger the reporter's life," and at the other end, "Publish absolutely nothing."

And in between those two points, you have many, many alternatives. And I don't know what type of alternatives were considered in the span of seven months for releasing some information about the kidnapping that maybe wouldn't have endangered Mr. Rohde's life.

Double standard for the media?

Kelly McBride
Poynter Institute
I worry about our credibility, yes. I also worry -- I actually didn't think it was possible that that many news organizations could agree on a total blackout of a story that would be, I think, relatively interesting to many people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you worried, as I guess some people might worry, that it looks as though there's a double standard for the media reporting on itself in this sense or on its own story?

KELLY MCBRIDE: Well, I worry about our credibility, yes. I also worry -- I actually didn't think it was possible that that many news organizations could agree on a total blackout of a story that would be, I think, relatively interesting to many people.

So I worry on that level, too. You know, the conspiracy theorist in me says, well, if they kept that from me, what else are they keeping from? And I know many of those conspiracy theorists, and I know that we're losing credibility with them by the day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Keller, respond to that. It sounds as though you had much the same debate and discussion there yourselves, but respond to all you just heard.

BILL KELLER: Well, we did. You know, I mean, I guess what I've got to say to that is that sometimes decisions that seem easy and clear cut in an ethics seminar are a lot more complicated in real life.

I talked to a number of the editors who agreed to keep this story to themselves over the last seven months, and the reason they did it was they agreed that it was the right thing to do.

I talked to David Rohde this morning. And, unprompted, one of the things he said to me was, Thank you for keeping this quiet. If the story had been publicized, I would have been in greater danger.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, we will leave it there. Thanks for telling us the story and its implications. Bill Keller and Kelly McBride, thanks very much.

BILL KELLER: You're welcome.

KELLY MCBRIDE: Thank you.