Last November, David Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan and held for several months, before managing to escape with his interpreter. Media around the world, at the request of the Times, kept silent about the kidnapping, and later drew criticism for this from some quarters. It has just happened again -- with my magazine, Editor & Publisher, among those not writing about it -- in the case of another well-known New York Times reporter in Afghanistan, but for a much shorter period of time.
Stephen Farrell, with his aide Sultan Munadi, were seized on Saturday and freed just hours ago in a daring raid by British commandos. Munadi and a commando were killed. Farrell is fine.
I saw some indications that Farrell had been snatched in my regular Web searches for media scoops over the weekend. As in the case of Rohde, a handful of not prominent blogs, along with very scattered media abroad (in their original language) reported that something was up, but confirmation was slight, given the silence of the Times and U.S. military.
This went on for two days, as I kept searching -- and finding that, once again, the media apparently were not rushing anything into print or online.
Also, as in the case of Rohde, I noticed that Farrell's Wikipedia entry had been scrubbed -- some user kept trying to post the kidnapping and the "news" kept getting deleted, before the entry was put under "protected" status and the cat and mouse game stopped. You can see it in the "history" there along with complaints of this "censorship crap" occurring again. (E&P covers the debate over such media blackouts here.)
The Times did not formally reach out to ask E&P to not report. although how much the Labor Day weekend had to do with that we do not know. Possibly, based on the Rohde experience, the paper felt that media would police themselves. As he had done in the Rohde episode, E&P's Joe Strupp eventually contacted Times executive editor Bill Keller, and as before, Keller confirmed the kidnapping, asked for restraint, and explained that the paper was in the midst of trying to deal with the situation.
Just hours later the commando raid came.
The New York Times site now reports:
Neither The Times nor Mr. Farrell's family knew that the military operation was taking place.
Until now, the kidnapping had been kept quiet by The Times and most other news media organizations out of concern for the men's safety. 'We feared that media attention would raise the temperature and increase the risk to the captives,' said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times. 'We're overjoyed that Steve is free, but deeply saddened that his freedom came at such a cost. We are doing all we can to learn the details of what happened. Our hearts go out to Sultan's family.'
Greg Mitchell's latest book is Why Obama Won. He is editor of E&P. His previous book on Iraq and the media was So Wrong for So Long.
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