The New York Times nailed down the news about the capture of the Taliban's No. 2 commander in Afghanistan last week but held off publishing the information at the request of a key player in the article — the Obama administration.
The cooperation with the White House added another layer of intrigue to the Times' exclusive report about the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence forces. The newspaper broke the news on its Web site on Monday night, at least three days after its reporters learned about the action.
After devoting the first seven paragraphs of the article to the news' significance, the Times disclosed its delay in reporting the development. The reason: White House officials contended that publicizing the information would damage their efforts to learn more from Baradar allies who didn't know yet that he had been captured.
White House officials made their argument after being contacted by the Times for comment, according to Bill Keller, the newspaper's executive editor. Based on the government's contention that more lives might be saved if the information remained under wraps, the newspaper agreed to hold the story "one day at a time, until the situation changed," Keller wrote Tuesday in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
After the Times' contributors in Afghanistan and Pakistan began to hear chatter on Monday about Baradar's capture, the newspaper decided that it couldn't sit on the story any longer.
"Our instinct is always to publish what we know as soon as we are confident it is true and fair and clearly told," Keller wrote. "We're in a competitive business, and we chomp at the bit when we have a good exclusive like this one. But it did our readers no harm to hold the story for a few days."
Kelly McBride, a specialist in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, agreed. "You always have to balance your primary loyalty to your audience against a request from some special interest like this," she said. "But there usually isn't a lot of harm in delaying a story for just a few days, as long as there is no harm done and there is a reasonable argument for doing so."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs still wouldn't confirm Barabar's arrest on Tuesday, citing sensitive intelligence matters.
It's difficult to judge the Times' handling of the Barabar story without knowing all the details of the newspaper's discussion with the White House, said Bob Steele, a journalism ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute. That's especially true when the news could provide context to what's happening in a volatile situation such as the war in Afghanistan.
Withholding the information about Barabar — even for just four days — left "a number missing from the equation" as the public tries to get a fuller understanding of what's happening in Afghanistan, said Steele, who is also director of DePauw University's Prindle Institute for Ethics.
Other news media, including The Associated Press, have agreed to honor government requests to delay publishing information in the name of national security. The cooperation poses a dilemma, Steele said, because "the primary objective of journalism is to provide information to the public, not withhold it."
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