Hostage? What hostage?

June 29, 2009

Photo courtesy of Tomas Munita for The New York Times

New York Times reporter David Rohde had been taken captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan seven months ago and — thank the deity of your choosing — he recently escaped and found his way to safety. That’s wonderful news.

Speaking of news, I would have guessed this gentleman’s capture itself would have qualified as news. The Times, however, thinks not, as it kept the story under wraps for the full seven months.

As NPR reports, “Out of concern for the reporter’s safety, The Times asked other major news organizations to do the same; NPR was among dozens of news outlets that did not report on the kidnapping at the urging of Rohde’s colleagues.”

In that NPR story, Melissa Block interviews Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics to journalists at the Poynter Institute. McBride tells NPR:

I find it a little disturbing because it makes me wonder what else 40 international news organizations have agreed not to tell the public. … I don’t think we [as journalists] do ourselves any favors long term for our credibility when we have a total news blackout on something that’s clearly of interest to the public.

More troubling for me, though, is McBride’s closing argument: “What’s so scary about this is, if it hadn’t been a journalist, I wonder if they would have made the decisions that they made.”

Whenever a ship captain gets snatched up by gun-toting pirates or a contractor working abroad is taken hostage by some militant types, those hostages’ names and faces are unavoidable. (Goes to show what an impact cable news can still have.) But when it’s one of their own, these major media outlets are quick to clam up in the name of protection.

Are these other hostages, the ones publicly identified so quickly, not in harm’s way? Does that sound hypocritical and a little scary to anyone other than me and Poynter’s McBride?

Photo courtesy of Tomas Munita/New York Times