In Pakistan on Friday, a hostage made an extraordinary escape from his Taliban captors. The hostage was a reporter for our partner The New York Times. David Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had been held by the Taliban since last November, when he was captured outside Kabul while working on a book about the region. On Friday, Mr. Rohde and an Afghan journalist being held with him climbed over a wall on the second floor of a compound in North Waziristan; their driver, also a prisoner, did not escape. If you didn't know that David Rohde was being held hostage, you aren't alone: The New York Times decided to keep it secret in an effort to protect Mr. Rohde. Bill Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times, and he joins us.
John Hockenberry for The Takeaway: On Friday, in Pakistan, there was an extraordinary escape by a hostage being held by Taliban captors. The hostage was a reporter for our partner, The New York Times. Davide Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had been in the hands of the Taliban since last November, when he was captured outside Kabul while working on a book about the region. On Friday, he climbed over a wall on the second floor of a compound in North Waziristan. He was joined by an Afghan journalist, who was also held captive, along with their driver. The driver did not escape. Now, you might not have known that David Rohde was held hostage at all. That’s because The New York Times has kept this entire story secret in an effort to protect Mr. Rohde and to facilitate his escape. Bill Keller is the executive director of the New York Times, he joins us now. Bill, congratulations, good morning, thanks for joining us.
Bill Keller: Thanks. Good morning, John.
John Hockenberry: I guess it’s fair to say that there is no more difficult and larger responsibility for any executive editor besides the veracity of the news than the safety of your reporters all around the world.
Bill Keller: Yeah, and of course this is one of those excruciating cases where the two responsibilities came into conflict. Obviously, our instinct, our default position is we report stuff. And sitting on a story feels unnatural and it makes us cringe. On the other hand, I have to make decisions of what’s in the best welfare of these people who take sometimes great risks to bring back the news. And, you know, in this case I think it was a pretty clear consensus that keeping the story quiet and imploring our colleagues in other news organizations to keep it quiet was the right thing to do, just in terms of keeping the danger to David as low as we possibly could.
John Hockenberry: For all kinds of reasons we’re restricted in the factual information we’re going to get into here, and we can talk about why that is in a moment, but it’s a hard question but I have to ask it: How much of the Daniel Pearle story, the Wall Street Journal journalist who, of course, was killed in Pakistan years ago at the beginning of the whole 9/11 period, how much of that story was a cautionary tale for you thinking about the welfare of David Rohde?
Bill Keller: Danny Pearle has a number of close friends here in the Times newsroom, so that story was one that hovered over the whole experience. And there are a number of others. We spent a lot of time talking to executives at various companies, including The Wall Street Journal, but not only, who have had reporters or other employees taken hostage in the Middle East region. We sought their advice. There’s sadly another large club of people who have this experience, something of a support group we’ve discovered.
John Hockenberry: Do you think that your strategy to keep the lid on this story bought David Rohde time? Because his escape, at least looks to me, as though it was serendipity, as though he found an opportunity and he managed to get out on his own.
Bill Keller: Yeah. I can’t tell you at this point whether anything we did made any difference. It does feel like serendipity. I talked to David this morning about a lot of things, but in the course of it he said that one point he wanted to make was that the decision to keep this quiet was absolutely right. He said his captors were completely obsessed with his value as a commodity and a lot of news coverage would have made them more determined than ever just to hang onto him.
John Hockenberry: Wow, that’s a huge piece of information. You were also in Iran this last week, reporting on the story, of course, which is in the same region. It involves some of the same issues: Islamists vs. people who want to run governments in a very different way. First of all, how much was the Rohde story on your mind as you tried to cover Iran. And secondly, did you worry about the fate of David Rohde as the situation in Iran began to unfold?
Bill Keller: We’ve been living with the David Rohde situation for 200 and some days. I learned that he was set free when my plane landed back in New York when I got back from Iran. So his case, while it’s always been a kind of nagging presence in the back of my mind, wasn’t a live issue most of the time that I was in Iran. One thing they do have in common, though, is that Iran itself is becoming a somewhat more treacherous place to work, particularly since the election and the crackdown of the government. Once again, we’re thinking very hard about what steps we might have to take to protect our people
John Hockenberry: You know, Bill Keller. I have this conversation with a lot of your reporters. I don’t want to drag them out into an area where they have to speculate, because they’re not comfortable doing that. They always yell at me when I suggest that they do it. But it seems to me that the situation in Iran and this escape of David Rohde, that it is perhaps fair to say that something’s shifting in the Islamic world. There’s something going on there that it seems very, very different from even five, six years ago.
Bill Keller: Yeah. I don’t know that I would connect…David does seem like a combination of planning, desperation and good luck. I’m not sure what sort of larger geopolitical conclusions can be drawn from that. There may be some, I don’t know. Iran on the other hand, something quite profound is happening there. There are essentially two pillars to the Iranian regime. One of them is clerical, religious, Islamic, and it’s supposedly made up of this sort of unanimous consensus view of what the Quran tells you about how to run your society. The other is democratic, secondary pillar, which has an elected president, elected parliament. And that one is supposed to provide a legitimacy and sort of a safety valve. Both of those are shaken.
John Hockenberry: I think you can also say that these pictures coming out of Iran, these pictures of Iranian victims in the streets, suddenly pictures of Western reporters and Westerners being held hostage and victims of Islamic forces, don’t have the cache that they used to. These pictures from the streets of Tehran are more powerful.
Bill Keller: Well they’re certainly plenty powerful. I’ve been clicking onto YouTube regularly just to check the video since I left, and they have a profound importance inside Iran in terms of keeping the fire alive and mobilizing people, and a tremendously important role outside in terms of keeping the rest of us aware of what’s going on there.
John Hockenberry: Well, Bill, I’ll put a moratorium on the speculation at this point. One thing you don’t need to speculate on, in a time of difficult times for the newspaper business, and your paper particularly tell me something about the mood at the New York Times this morning.
Bill Keller: I think the mood is pretty ecstatic and relieved because of David’s freedom. He has a lot of friends here and it’s nice to have a good story to tell. And I expect that once he’s had a little family time he will tell it.
John Hockenberry: Bill Keller, executive editor at our partner The New York Times. It’s safe for me to say have a good day.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.