All the News that’s Safe to Print

By , 24 June, 2009, 2 Comments

You may have missed it in the hubbub over the journos lost in Iran, but two journalists recently escaped from their kidnappers further east on the AfPak border. The New York Times triumphantly announced that it had covered up the kidnapping of David Rohde and his Afghan colleague for seven months in order to reduce their value to the kidnappers and increase likelihood of their release. Other media outfits quickly owned up to having cooperated in keeping the secret.

The bloggers were quick to jump on the Times with cries of hypocrisy—namely, the paper is supposed to report “all the news that’s fit to print,” meaning all verifiable information of material significance to public debate. Having authoritative, first-hand knowledge that a journalist from a major international title has been kidnapped in a war zone certainly qualifies. Moreover, the Times reports extensively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or on our government’s homeland security policies–doesn’t that give information to the enemy in the same way the editors claim publishing the Rohde story would have?

It would be possible—and indeed reasonable—to construct a code of professional conduct that drew a line between the ethics of reporting on oneself and the ethics of reporting on the government, but the Times would have to come out and disclose such a code and it would have to be water-tight and consistent with industry norms and standards.

One option would be to define “oneself” as the media writ large: journalists are obligated to report on diplomats and soldiers in danger, but are allowed to protect those who go out to do that reporting. Under this code, all media outlets would be expected to participate in the information blackout, as they did in the Rohde case. But this wouldn’t get the Times off the hook for hypocrisy since they routinely report on lost journalists who work for their rivals. The Times could also get away with a code that allowed them keep secret ONLY their own staffers lost, but that would mean letting other papers do the same. Since the Times asked other papers to help protect ITS staffers, it would be guilty of hypocrisy by this measure of ethics too.

The Times’ hypocrisy, it seems to me, lies not in the way they cover national security but in the way they view their media confreres. David Shuster, are you reading this?

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