The soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture saga of New York Times reporter David Rohde – who was kidnapped, along with his translator, by the Taliban last November and escaped, along with his translator, last Saturday – has raised some Big J journalism questions about the effort by the Times to keep the kidnapping out of the news.
As the Times itself just reported, its executives persuaded numerous mainstream media outlets to quash any coverage of the kidnapping. More problematic, Times execs also got Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to have the online encyclopedia delete any references to the kidnapping, so that the captors could not “get online and assess who he was and what he’d done and what his value to them might be.”
All worthy efforts, but journalistically sound?
Phoenix media critic Adam Reilly has some thoughtful comments on his blog, writing that
[W]hile Wikipedia did constrain the freedom of some of its users, it didn’t violate their freedom of speech. The individuals who wanted to get word of Rohde’s kidnapping out could have contacted countless news outlets, for example; or nabbed a relevant blogspot account to publicize Rohde’s situation and Wikipedia’s response; or simply stood on the streetcorner handing out leaflets that did the same.
That led to this response from a commenter:
I’d be more understanding if it wasn’t for the NYT double-standard. When it comes to releasing information about our secret program to track terrorists finances, they have no qualms about publishing that info, in essence working against America’s safety. So what happens when terrorism hits home with them? Surprise, it’s “hush-hush” to the point of deleting public information again or again. I’m glad the reporter is OK, but I’ll never trust the NYT, and now wikipedia.
Which led to this response from Adam Reilly:
When the Times reports something like the warrantless wiretapping story, they’re operating on the assuption that the threat to privacy is a massive public ill that outweighs any potential safety threat stemming from their coverage. Whether you buy that argument or not, it’s possible to make it.
One other aspect that many Times critics overlook: the paper held off on publishing the warrantless wiretapping story for a full year because the Bush administration convinced Times executives that the story’s potential to jeopardize public safety outweighed the public’s right to know what the federal government was up to.
The Times might want a mulligan on that call. But I bet they sleep just fine now that David Rohde is back in the fold.