Keller on Rohde: “There’s No Question It Was the Right Approach”

The NYT executive editor talks about the paper’s handling of the David Rohde story

On June 20, the world discovered that, since November 2008, New York Times reporter David Rohde had been held by Taliban kidnappers. Abducted while reporting in Afghanistan, Rohde and an Afghan journalist escaped last week while their captors slept. The world learned of the Rohde story only after his escape because The New York Times kept the abduction private, and asked other news organizations to join in a media blackout.

We at CJR were relieved to hear about David Rohde’s escape from his captors, and we’re curious about how The New York Times handled the abduction story over the past seven months. To learn more, we conducted an e-mail interview with Times executive editor Bill Keller.

Katia Bachko: What were the factors that led you to conclude that a media blackout was the right decision? Who did you consult with in making this decision? What were the various pieces of advice you received? What was the position of the family?

Bill Keller: We agonized over this at the beginning and repeatedly over the seven months David was in captivity. We’re in the news business. We don’t like to sit on a story. At the same time, we sometimes withhold information when we are convinced publishing could put lives in danger. Specifically, we have withheld information about kidnappings at the request of other organizations. The consensus of advice we got from others who have suffered through similar situations, from experts in hostage situations and from various officials was that going public would increase the risk to David and his companions. That was the family’s view throughout, and, with misgivings, mine. Basically the arguments for silence were that publicity would greatly enhance David’s perceived value to the kidnappers, that it could set in motion rumors and misinformation (eg. conspiracy theories that David was a spy), that it would open up a confusion of false leads and faux intermediaries, that it would mean his distraught family was bombarded with media attention, and that, in any case, the Taliban is not famous for being responsive to world opinion. There were dissenting views, of course, and as time went on we revisited the issue.

You might be interested in hearing the views of two journalists who have some standing on this subject. One is Steve Farrell, who is in our Baghdad Bureau, a very experienced Mideast hand, whom we hired from The Times of London. He wrote to me yesterday as follows:

Just to reinforce what you already said, from personal experience. When I was kidnapped in Iraq a few years ago—briefly, thank God—I established some rapport with the kidnappers. I remember just praying over and over again that the paper would keep it quiet because the last thing I needed was for that fragile bubble to be broken by some blowhard politician or pundit throwing around words like ‘terrorist’. The paper did keep it quiet.

I was also in the hotel in Baghdad when the Guardian correspondent was abducted a few years back. Because the news got out so quickly the Guardian’s bureau was flooded with phone lines, emails, interview requests, gossip, leads, false leads, etc.

I know you know this from the experts, but there’s no question it was the right approach.

The other is David Rohde. I talked to him yesterday, and, unprompted, he said the decision to keep quiet was the right one. The kidnappers were obsessed with his potential value as a commodity, and a media furor would have made it much harder to secure his release.

KB: From news reports, it’s hard to tell much about the kidnappers or their demands and ideology. What did you know about them during the ordeal?

BK: We got conflicting information along the way, but within a month or two of the kidnapping it was pretty clear he was in the custody of the Haqqani clan of the Taliban. Beyond that, we’ve declined to talk about our actions, deliberations, strategy, tactics, and so on. All of that stuff makes for nice narrative texture, but the danger is that it could offer useful guidance to future kidnappers. Doing journalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan is dangerous enough as it is.

KB: From the Times’s coverage it seems that the decision to keep the kidnapping private was guided in part by the fact that the victim was an employee of the paper. Would you consider a similar media blackout for kidnap victims who were not affiliated with the Times, but other media organizations? What about private citizens? Or, high profile Americans? For all them, it would seem that the same considerations would apply—not wanting to elevate their status in the kidnappers’ eyes, for example—but would it make a difference if the victim weren’t a journalist?

BK: We have in the past honored blackout requests in kidnapping cases—for journalists and non-journalists—and would do so in the future.

KB: When Rohde was a finalist and won a Pulitzer there was no mention of his name. Was that a nervous moment for you when you thought news might leak? Did you have a dialogue with the prize administrators about how to handle the situation?

BK: Yes, we were concerned that the prize might make the story irresistible. We drafted a just-in-case version of a story to post on our website if the news broke in a big way. To our relief, that proved unnecessary. I’m not aware that we brought it up with prize administrators. In group entries like this one, with more than three journalists involved in the submission, the award announcement cites the paper but does not list all of the contributors.

KB: We saw a piece in the Christian Science Monitorthat Rohde’s captors sent a video of him to Arab TV networks. Did that challenge your resolve to keep quiet about the kidnapping?

BK: I’m afraid that falls under the definition of things we don’t intend to discuss.

KB: We’ve heard that Al Jazeera agreed to the blackout as well. Is that true? Did that take any special persuasion?

BK: Yes, that’s true. I explained the situation to top editors at Al Jazeera, and they agreed not to do a story. The organizations that agreed to support our strategy of silence also included a number of outlets that would probably not be classified as MSM. Gawker, for instance.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.