This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Last November, New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped by the Taliban while reporting in Afghanistan. The Times was convinced that if the news were made public, Rohde was more likely to be killed. So they convinced 40-odd news organizations not to report the kidnapping until seven months later, when the reporter had finally escaped his captors. Whenever a journalist is kidnapped and the media don't report it, familiar ethical questions crop up. Is it fair to give journalists special treatment? Is it wrong to suppress news, even when a life may be at stake? This time though there was an added wrinkle. A Wikipedia user added information on Rohde’s kidnapping to Rohde’s Wiki page a few days after he was captured. The Times called Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales and asked him to redact the news from the page. Wales enlisted some Wikipedia administrators to do just that and set off a cat-and-mouse game between the Wikipedians who wanted the information online and those who didn't, an enterprise that lasted for the entire length of Rohde’s captivity. Jimmy Wales joins us now. Welcome to the show.
JIMMY WALES: Thank you. Good to be here. BOB GARFIELD: So, Wikipedia has gotten a lot of credit, all deserved, in covering news events that are unfolding in real time. I'm thinking of the London subway bombings, among many, many others. But that, I guess, can cut both ways, as it did in the case with David Rohde, no?
JIMMY WALES: Yeah, that’s right. What our community is really, really good at is synthesizing information from many, many different sources. And the community spends a lot of time really thinking and discussing and debating about when shall we take something as having been confirmed or not?
BOB GARFIELD: The usual answer is, well, Wikipedia may be wrong, but it’s not wrong for long. In the case of David Rohde, that wasn't the issue. The issue was whether Wikipedia would be right, and in reporting accurate information in near-real time, that this man’s life would be endangered. Is that an issue that you had previously encountered?
JIMMY WALES: No, it’s not one that we had encountered in quite this way before, but because The New York Times was very successful in having their media blackout, it was pretty easy for our volunteers to look at it and say, well, really under the rules of Wikipedia we've never considered ourselves a wide open free speech forum where people can post speculative things. We just look at it and we say, well yes, there was one report here and a couple of blogs, but really it’s not being reported anywhere else, so who knows. Now, of course, I knew that it was true because The New York Times contacted me to ask what could be done about it, but it’s not my obligation to report everything I know, just as it wouldn't be for anybody.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I will accept that at face value. Maybe Wikipedia does not in its mission statement claim to be an upholder of unfettered free speech. And it’s also hard for me to argue against the result here. After all, David Rohde did survive this ordeal. But, in fact, you had the ultimate sourcing on this. You had The New York Times asking you to intervene [LAUGHS] to make sure that -
JIMMY WALES: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - none of this stuff would find its way into Wikipedia. You knew to a moral certainty that David Rohde had been kidnapped and that the reports that you had removed from the site were accurate.
JIMMY WALES: Yeah, that’s right. But then we also have this sort of deeper question, which I've struggled with and I assume The New York Times struggled with, and I assume a lot of the other media organizations struggle with, which is the question of, well, what really is the best thing to do here? The New York Times told me that they were acting on advice that it would be best if it was kept quiet, and I just chose to believe that. If this had not worked, and let's imagine that Mr. Rhode had been executed by his captors, then I think there would be a lot of pushback on all of us now, saying, gee, maybe if you had reported on this he’d still be alive today.
BOB GARFIELD: Considering the idea that Rohde might not have come out of this alive, have you created any kind of fixed policy on circumstances like this, trying to anticipate what to do if something like this should arise again?
JIMMY WALES: No, we really haven't because every case is going to be somewhat different. You know, one of the interesting puzzles for me about this whole thing is when they called me and I said, yeah, okay, we'll look at it and we'll see what we can do and, yes, there’s no reliable sources, so it’s fine, I thought we had about three days. I thought, you know, it’s already in this blog and that blog, it’s such an interesting story; it’s going to be picked up by the blogosphere. It’s going to be all the rage, people speculating about what the hell’s going on. And that didn't happen. I suspect that it would be much harder to pull this off a second time.
BOB GARFIELD: I don't know, this is a tough one, you know? This media double standard thing is troubling, but David Rohde isn't dead, he’s alive. So who the hell knows?
JIMMY WALES: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting to say – I mean, we had some questions. You know, a conservative [LAUGHS] commentator said, well, they would never do this for FOX News. [LAUGHS] And I – well, of course, I would. I mean, that’s not really the relevant point. This wasn't some sort of a liberal conspiracy. But, on the other hand, there is this question of the media reports quite aggressively and gleefully when some blonde teenager gets kidnapped, and is that the right thing to do or not? And, of course, that’s a different kind of circumstance, as well. The particular point of this kidnapping was presumably, as in the Daniel Pearl case, to create a bit of a media circus and to call attention, and denying that attention seemed useful. So, I don't know. It’s very puzzling. I hope we don't have to do it very often.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jimmy, thank you very much.
JIMMY WALES: Yes, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Jimmy Wales is cofounder of Wikipedia, where he volunteers, and Chairman Emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation.