Home > Journalism, Torture > NYT on Torture, Revisited

NYT on Torture, Revisited

A year ago last week, I wrote about the NYT’s policy of referring to waterboarding, when practiced by the CIA, as “enhanced” or “harsh” or “brutal” interrogation but not as torture. Two months earlier, the NYT’s Public Editor, Clark Hoyt (who stepped down last month), addressed this issue in his weekly column, quoting NYT editor Douglas Jehl’s explanation that in discussing waterboarding,

I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?

Hoyt continued, “Jehl argued for precision and caution. I agree.” I disagreed, wondering why the paper shouldn’t try to discern the truth.

The cowardice, dishonesty, and hypocrisy of the paper was revealed unambiguously in an April report released publicly just this week by a group of students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Here is a key passage:

The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). . . . In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible.

The NYT’s policy wasn’t about truth; it was about not offending the Bush-Cheney administration. By abdicating the historic responsibility of the press, the Times (and its mainstream brethren) helped ensure that an honest and open discussion of US policy was not possible, that critics would be shouted down or viewed as extremists of the left, and that long-cherished norms of behavior would be suppressed asonce-shunned acts came to be regarded as normal and essential. Thank you, NYT.

Among the many commentators this week on the report, Scott Horton at Harper’s had the following sobering passage:

The way newspapers characterize practices like waterboarding has an immediate impact on the attitudes adopted by their readers. Accepting the language suggested by the Bush Administration (“enhanced interrogation techniques”) helped build public acceptance for the application of torture techniques. Victor Klemperer, in his masterful study of the manipulation of language in Germany from the thirties to the end of World War II, called such phrases “little doses of arsenic: they are consumed without being noticed; they seem at first to have no effect, but after a while, indeed, the effect is there.”

In his impressive attempt to catalogue these “doses of arsenic,” Klemperer awards pride of place to the words used by the state to describe prisoners, prison camps, and the treatments to which they were subjected. Indeed, one of the phrases developed in this era is still with us today. In special circumstances and usually only with the permission of higher authorities, interrogators were permitted to use a set of highly coercive techniques on prisoners, including hypothermia and stress positions. These techniques were called verschärfte Vernehmung: “enhanced interrogation.”

See also Glenn Greenwald (here), emptywheel (here), and Andrew Sullivan (here and here).

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Categories: Journalism, Torture
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