New in the Phoenix: Revisiting the Rohde case

In this week's paper, I write that David Rohde--the New York Times reporter who was kidnapped by the Taliban, and whose abudction was subsequently kept quiet by the Times, Wikipedia and others--still seemed, during a recent lecture at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, to be wrestling with the ethical implications of his case.

After Rohde's Nieman lecture, I sat down with him for a few minutes to discuss his case and its lessons in greater detail. An edited transcript follows.


Q. How strange was it to come out of captivity and become not just a story in your own right, but also a case study in journalistic ethics?

A. I think I was more uncomfortable with being the story. But I wrote the series, "Held by the Taliban," in the hopes that by telling the story of our captivity, we could teach people more about the Taliban and Pakistan.

Q. Was it hard to have people saying that the Times shouldn’t have kept quiet about your abduction, since that approach may have kept you alive?

A. No. I’m a reporter: I love it when people ask questions and debate stuff. So I’m happy to have people hold us accountable. We should be held accountable. The original practice of keeping it quiet was actually something that emerged in Kabul before my kidnapping; it started with the Melissa Fung case. I don’t know how that policy emerged; I don’t know how journalists in Kabul created this informal agreement that they wouldn’t report on kidnappings. I do think it should be a consist policy. It shouldn’t be that if journalists are kidnapped, we don’t report that. It should be that if anyone requests that a kidnapping be kept quiet, that request has to be respected.

Q. You made it clear in the lecture that you’re cognizant of the slippery slope this might create. As you said: What if the American ambassador in Kabul is kidnapped and the U.S. government asks for silence? It’s a big story. But with stories like the Times’s warrantless wiretapping scoop — or the abuses at Abu Ghraib, which you wrote about —  the government can argue, ‘These stories are going to put people at risk if you report them.’ So does there need to be some sort of a policy beyond kidnapping? A policy that exists for any reporting situation in which harm may be created?

A. Oh, I think in every story, every rep and editor is weighing what details to include and not include. I think it already happens in other cases —

Q. You mentioned mob informants.

A. Yeah. This is a concrete situation where someone’s life is in clear danger. They’re being threatened by people who are vowing to kill them if they don’t get what they want. It’s not a hypothetical. It’s not, ‘The release of these pictures could lead to problems in the future.’ It’s a very concrete situation. Journalists decide all the time what is a necessary fact, and what’s a fact that doesn’t change the tenor of the story, but could endanger someone. These are very rare cases, and they are very dangerous. So no, I don’t think this policy should be expanded beyond kidnappings. I think editors and reporters should hear people’s requests and arguments to not make something public, but there shouldn’t be automatic deference.

Q. When did you decide that your days as a war correspondent were over?

A. Oh, you know. [Laughs] During the kidnapping.

Q. When you came back from the Republica Sprska, had you weighed a similar move?

A. I was cautious for the 13 years after my captivity in Bosnia. And I made the wrong decision in this case. Look, a lot of journalism is luck. I made a bad decision, and I was unlucky. I recognize that fact. We all have to make personal decisions, and I’m not going to put my family or my editors through anything like this again. It was very clear to me, early in the kidnapping, that I was not going to be covering wars anymore.

Q. You  talked about working with the Dart Center on guidelines to help journalists avoid  the sort of thing you went through. What are some examples?

A. [Hesitates] Obviously, in my case, don’t interview insurgents. Many people have interviewed insurgents successfully, but something’s going to go wrong, and it can be you. As I said earlier, in many insurgencies now, journalists don’t have the protection of being seen as a neutral, third-party observers. So reporters just have to be very careful about how they move and where they go.

Q. New York magazine wrote that your guards had been bribed, and that you simply walked out of captivity. Is there anything that’s been reported that’s incorrect — anything on which you want to set the record straight?

A. No. What I said in the epilogue of the Times story is still true, which is that money was paid to people who said they knew our whereabouts, and that it didn’t get to the guys who actually lived with us. There was nothing in the description of the escape that I withheld. There’s nothing about that I’ve withheld or haven’t disclosed.

Q. You said earlier that you regretted telling your captors they could get millions of dollars for you. Is it possible, though, that creating that expectation helped keep you alive?

A. It might have, but in hindsight.... I didn’t understand, and I think we don’t understand, how valuable they consider a Western hostage. It’s not simply that they think they can get these big ransoms. As they told me, they think simply having one prisoner is delivering massive political blows to the American government. In reality, people forget about the case, and it didn’t really matter. So in hindsight, maybe I didn’t need to say that about the money, because they’d just be so happy to have a Westerner. But it’s very hard to know what helped and what didn’t help. I’m just elated to be home.

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