A journalist at the Huffington Post, in speaking of the taking and escape of David Rhode from guerrillas, terrorists, defenders of the faith, kooks or think thesauraus in part had this to say this morning:
My magazine, Editor & Publisher, was among the media outlets aware, very early on (probably ahead of many others), that Rohde had been snatched along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. I can't even recall how we learned of it. Like others, we did not write about it, even after New York Times editors confirmed it for us, off the record, of course. Times executive editor Bill Keller today told our Joe Strupp that we were among at least 40 news outlets that knew about the kidnapping.
In fact, what I witnessed in the six months after we found out about it was the most amazing press blackout on a major event that I have ever seen: at least in the case of a story involving such a prominent news outlet and a leading reporter. I wonder how strongly, if at all, this non-reporting will be criticized in the weeks to come.
If David Rohde had been a lawyer, a doctor, a trash collector or a toll taker would the forty odd newspapers and e-papers who held their tongues to save his life have all refrained from that empathic understanding of the hidden ethics of the journalism :"I don't evaluate. If its news I write about it."
Those who follow my writing on OS know that I have been in the "Washington trades" since I was twenty four. I am now seventy. In that time, I have never successfully been able to argue a case to a reporter that my future should come ahead of their "news gathering and publishing". I can remember at least a dozen of those where my professional life was endangered by reporters who gave me less slack than they gave Rohde.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad they gave him and his family the slack he needed to stay alive until he could escape. I'm with President Obama. When you are judging in a legal (or humanistic) sense for God's sake have empathy. No Supreme Court Justice should leave home without it!
I guess my hypothetical question is directed to those of you who are journalists and have views on your profession and where that profession and those views intersect with your ethics.
Journalism without empathy has happened to me several times in my life. Here are only three examples: Once by the Washington Post who splattered me across the front page and six columns inside with a totally false story because, in their words "If we have two sources we print the story and your denial". They did. But did the reporters do elementary due dilligence to find out the sources were mortal enemies.
Once by the former New York Times reporter (Judy Miller); may her career rest in peace because my father was dying and her article might finish him off.
And in a rare but easily understandable semi-exception, the Wall Street Journal. I wanted the right of final editorial approval but I had some leverage. In exchange for final editorial approval they got a front page right hand column story out of me which revealed a pending decision by the President. But, based on my long experience in Washington I still waited for the delivery of the Wall Street Journal that morning with my heart racing at 140 beats per minute and my teeth chattering. They kept their bargain. But I was never really 100 % sure they would.
Another thought in passing: If leaking classified information is unlawful (unless the President decides to do it as Bush claimed he had the right to do), aren't reporters who routinely print classified leaks, which by definition are harmful to the national security if published, co-conspirators, accomplices before or after the fact and treasonous? Does freedom of the press extend to the publication of secret information which was legitimately classified by the Government? We know the first amendment is not an absolute right. Various Supremes have made that clear. Is this the sort of area where a bright line should be drawn? Classified? Okay. Life endangering? Discretionary. Professional career endangerment? Fair Play.