Did the New York Times want to keep reporter David Rohde's kidnapping in Afghanistan quiet because they feared for his safety, or because they didn't want to drive up his ransom price? Rohde himself has suggested the latter.
In comments at last night's Behind the Scenes at The New York Times event, according to the New York Observer, Times executive editor Bill Keller said he'd spoken to Rohde and that Rohde said this:
By the way, thank you for not making a public event out of this. We heard the people who kidnapped me were obsessed with my value in the marketplace. If there were a lot of news stories, they would have held me much tighter.
The way the Times kept Rohde's kidnapping from becoming a public event was by telling reporters who were considering writing about it—including us—in no uncertain terms that the Times had been directly informed by the people who kidnapped Rohde that his life would be further endangered if news of his kidnapping spread. To repeat: We were told directly by Times that Rohde's kidnappers said he was more likely to die if people reported on the story.
Now Rohde himself is flatly contradicting that account. If his kidnappers were "obsessed with" his market value, they would have welcomed coverage to drive up his price. If they would have held him more tightly if that value went up, it would have been because they intended to redeem him.
The only thing that matters in a situation like this is Rohde's life and safety, and we find it very difficult to begrudge the Times' handling of the situation. But asking reporters to quash a newsworthy story in order to preserve a life is a very different thing from asking for help to save the New York Times Co. some money.
It's possible that Rohde's assessment of his kidnappers' motives is inaccurate. It's possible that the Times was getting fragmented and confusing information from the kidnappers, and erred on the side of safety. Which would be entirely forgivable given the circumstances. And in the end, this situation yielded the best possible outcome, though it's not clear how much of that was because of the Times' news blackout.
But if the Times was lying, or overstating the case when its representative told us—and, we presume, everyone else who inquired about this story prior to its resolution—that the paper had heard directly from the kidnappers that Rohde's life would be further endangered by increased public attention to his case, it needs to account for it.
Our calls to a Times representative haven't been returned.
UPDATE: After checking with Keller, a Times spokeswoman says via e-mail that both her representations to Gawker about Rohde's kidnappers' threats and Rohde's account of their motivations are true. But "at this point we are not going to go into the details."
New York magazine has a partial insider account of the negotiations for Rohde's release, and it quotes an anonymous source involved with the negotiations saying he didn't fear for Rohde's life:
While [Rohde's wife] and other members of Rohde's family naturally feared for the reporter's life, intelligence and kidnapping experts sensed that his captors' goal was not to kill Rohde but to make money. "We were never really worried that they would kill him," says one of the sources. "This wasn't Al Qaeda. These were businessmen."
This would also seem to flatly contradict the Times' assertion to us that the kidnappers had told the paper that Rohdes' peril would be magnified if news of his kidnapping got out. But it's not clear from the story whether the insider's judgment applies only to Abu Tayeb, the warlord who originally kidnapped him, or Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban commander he was later sold to.