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Editors wavered on secrecy of story

Sun., June 21, 2009

There were times during the kidnapping ordeal of New York Times reporter David Rohde when his boss wavered in his determination to suppress the story.

“We agonized over it at the outset and, periodically, over the last seven months,” said Executive Editor Bill Keller. “Of all the subjects we discussed with the family, that was the one we discussed more intensively than any other: Should we change strategy and go public?”

Keller decided against it, and he was aided by silence from at least 40 major news organizations – including, after a personal appeal, Al-Jazeera – that continued until Saturday, when the Times confirmed that Rohde and an assistant had escaped their Taliban captors in Pakistan. Keller consulted not only government experts but also other news organizations that had been through similar experiences, and there was “a pretty firm consensus,” he said, “that you really amp up the danger when you go public. … It makes us cringe to sit on a news story,” but in a life-or-death situation, “the freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.”

Still, the unusual arrangement raises questions about whether journalists were giving special treatment to one of their own. “It certainly could appear that way, but it’s more complicated than that when a human life is at stake,” said Phil Bronstein, former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. “It does involve a news organization keeping quiet and asking others to keep quiet. What shocks me is that it was so successful.”


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