A small role in the Rohde story

New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped from the Taliban in the frontier areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan after being held captive for seven months.  Neither Rohde nor the Times has given many details of either his capture or his escape, but given the propensity of the Taliban to murder Western hostages, his survival alone testifies to Rohde’s perserverance, and the story of his escape will certainly fascinate all of us, once it is fully told.

Many people may be surprised to hear that a Times reporter had been captured at all.  The NYT took pains to keep the story from leaking, in order to protect Rohde:

Until now, the kidnapping has been kept quiet by The Times and other media organizations out of concern for the men’s safety.

“From the early days of this ordeal, the prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases, officials of several governments and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages. The kidnappers initially said as much,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times. “We decided to respect that advice, as we have in other kidnapping cases, and a number of other news organizations that learned of David’s plight have done the same. We are enormously grateful for their support.”

On March 12th of this year, I learned through another blogger, whom I will not name at the moment, that Rohde had been abducted.  Obviously, this would have been quite a story, especially given the near-total media silence on the matter.  In searching the Internet, I found only a handful of mentions about the kidnapping, all of them in foreign wire services.

Instead of publishing the story immediately, I called the New York Times to first confirm it, and also to see why they hadn’t reported it themselves.  I spoke to a member of the media relations department, who asked me to refrain from writing about Rohde, explaining their concerns for his safety.  She assured me that they would get in touch with me immediately if any new developments occured, which didn’t happen, but from our conversation it appeared that they had a long list of contacts for that contingency ahead of me.

In the end, I sat on the story.  When it broke today with the happy news of Rohde’s escape, my friend at Gay Patriot sent a critical Twitter to NYT reporter/columnist Nicholas Kristof for the Times’ secrecy to protect their employee but their willingness to expose highly classified national-security programs that put Americans at greater risk for attack.  I agree with Gay Patriot that the way the Times treated Rohde and those stories seems pretty hypocritical, but I would hope that they would take the lesson from this and show much greater restraint in the future in endangering important security programs rather than err on the side of informing the public when it puts lives at risk unnecessarily.

Gay Patriot said that his criticism doesn’t extend to me, and I appreciate that, but I always planned to disclose my decision when the time was right to allow Hot Air readers to deliver their own verdict.  I considered the short-term boost of an quasi-exclusive (a handful of other bloggers had picked this up as foreign media sources reported it) against the risk to someone’s life.  Even though we don’t agree much with the Times, Rohde did what we demanded of reporters in Iraq, which was to go outside their hotel rooms and get the actual stories on the ground, and in doing so he fell victim to terrorists.  I didn’t want to compound that risk and punish him for doing his job correctly by getting a momentary thrill of a semi-scoop that could have gotten him killed, and would have gained me nothing beyond one or two news cycles.

In the end, I agree with Robert Stein at TMV in that one has to balance the public’s right to know with the safety and security of real people.  News organizations might want to think about that in the future, too.

Did I do the right thing?  I’ll be interested in reading your comments.