BROOKE GLADSTONE: As I read this Friday afternoon, there's still no word from Jill Carroll, a freelancer working for the Christian Science Monitor, taken hostage in Iraq, though her hostage video played all week on cable news. She was abducted on January 7th, but her identity wasn't reported until the 9th, not because the press didn't know it, but because they'd been asked to keep it under wraps. For more than 48 hours, the U.S. press observed a near-complete embargo. Monitor Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson said he was, quote, "heartened that the people were so willing to help us" with the blackout that he'd requested. But once it was over, many asked why the press had so willingly squelched a story. Media critic Mark Jurkowitz writes the "Don't Quote Me" column for the Boston Phoenix, and he says that despite reports of some newsroom debate, in this case the editors who made the decision were of one mind.
MARK JURKOWITZ: News organizations are very hierarchical. Generally, when it comes to the kind of these tough ethical quandaries, no one goes out into the middle of the newsroom and holds a referendum and has a debate. Usually [CHUCKLES] it's top officials, the guys making the most money, on whose shoulders these decisions fall, and they tend to be pretty decisive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And some papers, like USA Today, who'd missed the initial embargo, even – [OVERTALK]
MARK JURKOWITZ: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - pulled the AP story from their websites once they heard from the Monitor. Does this kind of agreement surprise you? Does it worry you?
MARK JURKOWITZ: It doesn't surprise me as much as people think. First of all, not everybody did agree to it. There were some overseas news organizations initially that did not agree. I think that media organizations tend to be a lot more thoughtful when it comes to issues of life and limb than the public often give us credit for. I'll give you some examples in the area of national security. Right before the attack began on Afghanistan after September 11th, 2001, Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post reported that 17 news organizations actually knew ahead of time when the bombing was going to start. That was embargoed. Knight Ridder sat on a story that the United States government asked it to sit on about special troops being on the ground in Afghanistan before the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The American media withhold a lot of stories for a time, for a variety of reasons, and the public doesn't necessarily know.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Famously in the NSA spying case, they know the story – [OVERTALK]
MARK JURKOWITZ: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - was held for a year and they've raised a number of questions about that. What about this charge that reporters were unduly protecting their own, offering preferential treatment to a journalist that they wouldn't offer a military contractor?
MARK JURKOWITZ: That's a troubling charge on its face, and I think if you're really a student of the media, you can make a case sometimes we treat ourselves in our own profession differently than we treat others. I think for one thing, media's coverage of layoffs, cutbacks, buyouts and the travail in their own industry tends to be more excessive than it is when we cover other industries and other people who lose their jobs, for example. I don't think there's any evidence to suggest that decision makers in newsrooms said you know what, she's a journalist. We treat her differently than we treat a contractor or a civilian or anybody else who gets caught up in this. It's a little hard to make an analogous situation with kidnappings in Iraq, per se, because, as a lot of journalists pointed out, two things. We don't know initially when a lot of people are kidnapped, and, two, it is true that the Christian Science Monitor, because it's a media organization, had a way of communicating instantly with other media organizations. The families or employers of contractors, for example, might not have that kind of an opportunity. You know, some people have talked now, in light of the Carroll case, of coming up with a hard and fast policy about how to deal with these kind of requests. I think that's a huge mistake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. You think it's better if the media are inconsistent, right?
MARK JURKOWITZ: You know, I like to see different media organizations make different decisions when they're confronted with sort of the same ethical quandary. The public kind of thinks we're monolithic, that the news of the day comes down every day at three p.m. like the tablets from Mount Sinai. It's important to let the public know that editors and producers make difficult decisions based on different values, then come to different conclusions about how to handle something, and can justify it internally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, I'll buy that inconsistency can help the reputation of the news business. But will it help save the life of a kidnap victim, and should we even be worried about that?
MARK JURKOWITZ: All you can do at that point is listen to a request from, in this case, the Christian Science Monitor, and decide out of respect for them and their concern about the safety of somebody that it's worth adhering to for a brief period of time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was thinking of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street – [BOTH AT ONCE]
MARK JURKOWITZ: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - Journal reporter who was kidnapped and ultimately murdered in Pakistan. There were requests made to the media on how to report on him while there was still some hope of obtaining his release, you know for instance, that they omit references to him being Jewish. How much discretion is just enough, and how much is too much?
MARK JURKOWITZ: You know, rarely is there a rulebook that says okay, if it involves withholding a name, we can do it for 24 hours, if it involves withholding religion, we can do it for 72 hours. Certainly there can't be a double standard because they happen to be in the same business we are. If a contractor was kidnapped tomorrow under the same circumstances, then I would certainly hope that the decisions made would be based on the same basic humanitarian impulses that they were made this time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Carroll is obviously not alone in being kidnapped in Iraq. It's become alarmingly common, and obviously not just for journalists. But do you think her case provides a chance to have a public conversation about how the media should respond when journalists become part of the story?
MARK JURKOWITZ: The one thing that I think is important in any kind of public conversation is transparency. Explain to the public that there was an embargo, who was responsible for asking for the embargo, and the reasoning behind the decision not to break the embargo for 48 hours. One would hope that whenever we become part of the story, we are willing to talk about that candidly with the people who consume the news and who rely on us to do so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK JURKOWITZ: You're welcome, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz writes the "Don't Quote Me" column for the Boston Phoenix. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
RICK KARR: Coming up, the art of the sell from health cures to the hard stuff and, at the ripe old age of one, the new food pyramid needs repair.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.