After the New York Times successfully orchestrated a news blackout during the kidnapping of a Times reporter, questions arose about how the media would respond if the Pentagon asked reporters to keep a similar story quiet.
An answer came in July when the tables were turned and the Taliban kidnapped an American soldier based in eastern Afghanistan. Would the news media report the soldier's kidnapping while attempts to rescue him were still under way?
Some background first. The Taliban captured Times reporter David Rohde, an assistant, and a driver outside of Kabul on Nov. 10, 2008. Times editors concluded that Rohde had a better chance of surviving if the kidnapping were kept quiet. Some 40 news media outlets, including NPR, went along with the news blackout. The pair escaped on June 19 leaving behind their Afghani driver (who did not try to escape).
This incident angered some NPR listeners, as it appeared that NPR's loyalty was toward an individual journalist and not its audience.
"I listen to NPR because it has been my perception that your reporting is unbiased and represents quality, truthful, objective journalism," wrote David Barr, of Bremerton, WA. "Discovering that you took part in the media black out of David Rohdes' kidnapping has made me question those perceptions."
He said he understands the concern for Rohde's life.
"It is that I find this decision by your management to be morally reprehensible," continued Barr. "As journalists your primary obligation is to the public, to your listeners, to the dissemination of information. How can a listener truly trust your programming if he has to question whether or not he is being given the truth? When will NPR hide information from me next? Did Mr. Rohdes receive special treatment just because he was a journalist?"
NPR's senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, said that the Times never made a formal request asking NPR to keep Rohde's capture quiet.
"That said, correspondents in Kabul all knew of the kidnapping and the fact delicate negotiations were being conducted to free Rohde and were urged by his colleagues not to write about it for fear it could sabotage negotiations," said Weiss.
She added that "while being brutally honest and dogged about the news, we also understand that there are unintended consequences, whether to a journalist or to a soldier - and we are willing to consider those moral issues along with the news value. And risking a human life is one of those moral issues we take and consider very seriously. I would hope that valuing life over the story is not morally reprehensible to anyone in our audience."
So what did the media do when an American soldier went missing on June 30?
Stars and Stripes, the military's newspaper, knew about the disappearance but kept quiet, according to Pentagon spokesperson Bryan Whitman. The Pentagon purposely made no announcement but then felt the media forced its hand.
"I got a call (from a public information officer in Afghanistan) about 3 a.m. on July 2 that another news organization — a European organization — had learned of this and indicated to the public affairs' person that this news organization had the story and we're going to go with it," said Whitman. He wouldn't name the European outfit.
Inside the Pentagon, Whitman said they'd been talking about the kidnapping for days.
"We said we were not going to actively announce he was missing while we were trying to recover him," said Whitman. "This determination was made that it was in our best interests if we didn't acknowledge this for as long as we could. In the first few critical early days, it would be to our advantage to not publicly announce this while trying to locate him."
But after the call from the European news organization, the Pentagon confirmed the disappearance on July 2. NPR's Jackie Northam filed a newspot from Afghanistan, and a web piece was posted the same day. The soldier's name was not released. (On July 19, after the Taliban released of a video of Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, the Pentagon confirmed his identity.)
When Whitman later tried to detangle what happened, he couldn't find a clear answer. "I am not entirely convinced that at the lowest level, our man on the ground really made a case to the reporter on the ground about the implications and asked them not to publish the information. I think the young lad in the field felt when the information was brought to him, there was no negotiation."
Whitman thinks if there had been a more experienced Pentagon media representative in the field, there would have been more dialogue.
"We wouldn't have announced [the kidnapping] if we didn't feel the story was breaking on us," said Whitman.
There are several reasons to keep a kidnapping quiet, especially early on. The kidnapper doesn't know what you know, or what actions are being taken. The more attention the news media brings to a kidnapping only serves to heighten the value of the captured person to the kidnappers.
Weiss said NPR would consider any Pentagon request and decide how to respond on a case-by-case basis.
"In the past, we have been asked to hold off on reporting about certain things," she said. "For example, when President Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq, our reporter was on Air Force One. But we did not reveal news about the trip until the president arrived. In covering wars, reporters in the field have always been asked to refrain from reporting about certain maneuvers or events for fear it would endanger troops."
The Rohde and Bergdahl cases present a challenge for news organizations. It's understandable that the Times editors would put its loyalty toward an employee over the audience — but it's not a good precedent. Saving a life is commendable but the news media can't have a double standard and protect their own but not the kidnapped soldier, or contractor or executive working in foreign setting.
After Bergdahl's name was released, I went back to Whitman. It seemed the news media had behaved well in this case
"Perhaps I'm not as optimistic as you are in this case," said Whitman. "True, some did hold off on reporting the name until we announced it. That said, I'm less confident that they would have held that position for very long. Given the very competitive nature of your business, it would only take one outlet to report it and I imagine the rest would be compelled to follow."
Whitman probably is correct. Once an important story is out — regardless of how or why it was first reported — the rest of the news media tends to treat it as news that must be reported. That is the essential role of the news media, after all.