News bosses clam up to protect their own

I caught up with my old CBC News colleague Mellissa Fung the other day.

She was on a Global show called 16×9 – whatever that means – reporting the story of her return to the place in Afghanistan where she was kidnapped seven years ago.

It was a solid 25-minute piece, but what really hit me was I’m still steamed about the news blackout that accompanied her captivity.

I worked with Fung at CBC News for a few years. We weren’t pals. But I liked her sly sense of humor.

Her abduction in the fall of 2008 set off two alarms for me: concern for her well-being, and distrust the CBC would handle the situation properly.

I soon learned we would not be reporting the news. Why? It was just one of those CBC edicts from on high, not to be questioned.

I assumed we would be scooped on our own story, that someone in the press corps in Afghanistan would notice Fung was missing.

Days passed. Then weeks. Nothing.

It never occurred to me that major news organizations in Canada, the United States and Britain would collude to sit on the story until Fung was freed – or killed.

At the time, I was also teaching journalism at Humber College in Toronto. On the QT, I enlisted one of my best students, Justin Robertson, to get on the phone.

“Call John Cruickshank and tell him you know Mellissa Fung is being held hostage in Afghanistan,” I instructed him. “See what he says.”

Cruickshank was then head of CBC News. A Canadian, he’d been publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times for four years before he arrived at the network in September 2007.

(He kept his newspaper title, declaring himself publisher of CBC News – and left after 14 months to become publisher of the Toronto Star.)

In any case, Justin couldn’t get Cruickshank on the phone to talk about Mellissa Fung. Nor would anyone else at CBC go on the record.

I told Justin to drop it until something broke. If the timing was right, he could pick it up again as his contribution to a student magazine on the media. The angle: Why did the CBC not report the news?

When Fung, then 35, was freed 28 days after she was taken, Cruickshank told a news conference: “In the interest of Mellissa’s safety and that of other working journalists in the region, on the advice of security experts, we made the decision to ask media colleagues not to publish news of her abduction.”

The compliant included AP, CP, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, the Star, Globe and Mail, BBC, CNN and CTV, Cruickshank told Justin.

In his magazine article, Justin quoted editorial bosses at all of the Canadian co-conspirators:

  • “We agreed not to print what we knew, what everybody knew, only if everyone else agreed to the blackout.” – Star
  • “No news story is worth someone’s life.” – Canadian Press
  • “Out of great concern for her safety, we respected (the CBC’s) request.” – CTV News
  • “If a given piece of information is newsworthy, in the public interest, it’s publish and be damned. On the other hand, there are no absolutes.” – Globe and Mail

One thing particularly bugged me about all these noble proclamations from all these self-important news organizations.

A couple of months earlier, they had quickly and routinely reported the abduction of Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout in East Africa.

She was a young freelance TV reporter from Alberta, trying to make her bones in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, where she was a hostage for 15 months. (Her family reportedly paid a ransom for her release.)

But the powerful news organizations that manage the news to protect their own did not offer the same shield to Amanda Lindhout.

If blackouts are imposed to keep people safe, make it blackouts for all – for the executive kidnapped in South America; the aid worker taken in Africa; the sweetheart of Sigma Chi held hostage at a mountain cabin in Idaho.

Two days after Fung was released, New York Times reporter David Rohde was taken by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

At the request of the Times, more than 40 news outlets clammed up for the seven months before Rohde escaped.

When NBC correspondent Richard Engel and his crew were held hostage in Syria in 2012, the media lid was on again – for the five days until they were freed.

This is the big-media playbook.

It’s time to erase the line about reporting the news without fear or favor.

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