Mixed Media: When the press keeps secrets

Americans' trust in the press has been slipping for years. Will the disclosure that some 40 news organizations cooperated in hushing up the kidnapping of a New York Times reporter by Taliban militants damage it still further? Or will it help to reverse the trend? Both, probably.

The Times revealed on Saturday that reporter David Rohde had escaped after seven months in captivity in Pakistan. Fearing publicity would add to his peril, the paper refrained from printing anything about his capture, and convinced every other major news outlet that learned of it to do the same. Incredibly, the entities that agreed to respect the blackout included not just other newspapers and TV networks but Gawker, a gossip blog that officially adheres to no ethics but the ethic of the pageview.
This display of solidarity undercuts one of the most frequently-voiced criticisms of the press: that it respects no boundaries, that it's all too willing to ruin reputations and endanger lives in pursuit of scoops. That was the rap last fall when numerous outlets reported on paper-thin rumors that Sarah Palin's son Trig was actually her daughter's baby, and it's a charge that's been leveled against the Times itself, notably after the paper revealed details about the NSA's wiretapping program (although in that case, the paper obeyed its own self-imposed embargo at the request of the government for 13 months).

But critics of the Times, and of the "liberal media establishment," are already making the predictable argument that all this restraint was merely a case of clubby journalists protecting one of their own. Hot Air blogger Ed Morrissey respected the blackout, but nevertheless calls the Times "pretty hypocritical" for reporting on wiretapping but not on Rohde's capture. "I would hope that they would take the lesson from this and show much greater restraint in the future in endangering important security programs rather than err on the side of informing the public when it puts lives at risk unnecessarily," he writes. "[H]ow do the rest of us get the same treatment as journalists?" wonders a blogger at Newsbusters.

In his book True Enough, Slate's Farhad Manjoo showed how American public opinion has fragmented in such a way that every new event or piece of information serves to widen the divide. This seems to be an example of that phenomenon. Those who are inclined to trust and admire journalists see their willingness to sit on a scoop to protect a comrade as admirable; those who view the press and biased and self-interested only see their suspicions confirmed.
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