These Colors Don’t Torture, They Just Waterboard

Andrew Sullivan:

This blog, along with others, compiled some anecdotes and research to show how the New York Times had always called “waterboarding” torture – until the Bush-Cheney administration came along. Instead of challenging this government lie, the NYT simply echoed it, with Bill Keller taking instructions from John Yoo on a key, legally salient etymology. Now, we have the first truly comprehensive study of how Bill Keller, and the editors of most newspapers, along with NPR, simply rolled over and became mouthpieces for war criminals, rather than telling the unvarnished truth to their readers and listeners in plain English:

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%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

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 Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.

So the NYT went from calling waterboarding torture 81.5 percent of the time to calling it such 1.4 percent of the time. Had the technique changed? No. Only the government implementing torture and committing war crimes changed. If the US does it, it’s not torture.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

Wow. So, not long ago, America’s major newspapers basically decided that waterboarding was somehow okay. American waterboarding, that is! In the same time frame, the same newspapers made it clear that if any other country practiced waterboarding, it was torture.

Emptywheel at Firedoglake:

One of the most telling details from the study is the description of how newspapers admitted that waterboarding is torture without their omniscient editorial voice describing it as such: they quoted other people.

All four papers frequently balanced their use of softer treatment by quoting others calling waterboarding torture. Except for a brief spate of articles in 1902‐1903 in the NY Times which quoted mostly military officials and senators, almost all of the articles that quote others calling it torture appeared in 2007 and 2008.

More telling still, newspapers barely began to do that until 2007, three years after they started talking about torture, and they most often relied on John McCain to state what–before it became clear the US engaged in such torture–their own pages had stated fairly consistently beforehand.

When quoting others who call waterboarding torture, there is a shift in who the LA Times and the NY Times quoted over time.

Before 2007, the NY Times had only scattered articles quoting others. However, beginning in 2007, there is a marked increase in articles quoting others, primarily human rights groups and lawmakers. Human rights representatives predominate during the first half of the year. However, beginning in October, politicians were cited more frequently labeling waterboarding torture. Senator John McCain is the most common source, but other lawmakers also begin to be cited. By 2008, the articles’ references are more general such as “by many,” or “many legal authorities.” Stronger phrases such as “most of the civilized world” also begin to appear.

The dead tree press, apparently, couldn’t find an expert they believed could adequately voice the long-standing consensus that waterboarding is torture–a consensus recorded in their own pages (at least those of LAT and NYT)–until after McCain started speaking out on the topic.

One more point. The study only examined the four papers with the greatest circulation: NYT, LAT (both of which had extensive archives the study measured for previous uses of torture), USA Today, and WSJ (which didn’t have the same range of archives). So it did not include the WaPo in its study–the paper notorious for torture apology from both the newsroom and Fred Hiatt’s editorial page. So the numbers could be even worse!

What a remarkable measure of the cowardice of our press. And what a remarkable measure of how it happened that torture became acceptable. It’s not just that the press failed in their job, but it’s clear that’s a big part of it.

Glenn Greenwald:

As always, the American establishment media is simply following in the path of the U.S. Government (which is why it’s the “establishment media”): the U.S. itself long condemned waterboarding as “torture” and even prosecuted it as such, only to suddenly turn around and declare it not to be so once it began using the tactic.  That’s exactly when there occurred, as the study puts it, “a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboading.”  As the U.S. Government goes, so goes our establishment media.

None of this is a surprise, of course.  I and others many times have anecdotally documented that the U.S. media completely changes how it talks about something (or how often) based on who is doing it (“torture” when the Bad Countries do it but some soothing euphemism when the U.S. does it; continuous focus when something bad is done to Americans but a virtual news blackout when done by the U.S., etc.).  Nor is this an accident, but is quite deliberate:  media outlets such as the NYT, The Washington Post and NPR explicitly adopted policies to ban the use of the word “torture” for techniques the U.S. Government had authorized once government officials announced it should not be called “torture.”

We don’t need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task:  once the U.S. Government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, U.S. media outlets dutifully cease using the term.  That compliant behavior makes overtly state-controlled media unnecessary.

Adam Serwer at The American Prospect:

Greenwald says this proves the media’s “servitude to government,” but I think it’s actually the conventions of journalism that are at fault here. As soon as Republicans started quibbling over the definition of torture, traditional media outlets felt compelled to treat the issue as a “controversial” matter, and in order to appear as though they weren’t taking a side, media outlets treated the issue as unsettled, rather than confronting a blatant falsehood. To borrow John Holbo‘s formulation, the media, confronted with the group think of two sides of an argument, decided to eliminate the “think” part of the equation so they could be “fair” to both groups.

Of course, this attempt at “neutrality” was, in and of itself, taking a side, if inadvertently. It was taking the side of people who supported torture, opposed investigating it as a crime, and wanted to protect those who implemented the policy from any kind of legal accountability. Most important, it reinforced the moral relativism of torture apologists, who argued that even if from an objective point of view, waterboarding was torture, it wasn’t torture when being done by the United States to a villain like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, but rather only when done by say, a dictator like Kim Jong Il to a captured American soldier.

Like they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case, journalistic conventions helped pave the way for an unaccountable national-security apparatus.That doesn’t mean that some journalists have skewed perceptions of whom they actually work for, but I think that’s the lesser issue here.

Kevin Drum:

As always, where you stand depends on where you sit.

James Joyner:

The fact of the matter is that the United States Government was engaged in this policy against Very Bad People for reasons the American people enthusiastically supported.   Most Americans were nonplussed when news broke that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times because, after all, KSM was a Very Bad Man who did Unspeakably Horrible Things.

This puts the decisionmakers of the American press, whether they agreed or not, in a very difficult situation.  To have insisted that the U.S. Government was engaged in torture when the leaders of said Government adamantly denied that what they were doing constituted torture and most citizens supported the “enhanced interrogation techniques” and dismissed as buffoons those worried about poor widdle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have not only been taking sides in an ongoing debate but taking a very unpopular stand.

Additionally, the use of the word “torture” has legal and propaganda implications.  To have matter-of-factly stated that the U.S. Government was engaged in torture was to say that those carrying it out are criminals.  The press doesn’t do that with accused criminals, even when there’s incontrovertible video evidence.  And, of course, saying that the U.S. Government is engaged in “torture” is a propaganda victory for the enemy.  That’s a tough thing to do in wartime.

Further, while the press doubtless came to despise some members of the Bush Administration, they naturally had close relationships with the team and saw most of its members as good people trying earnestly to protect the country from another 9/11 type attack.  It’s  psychologically and professionally difficult to dismiss their insistence that they’re not committing torture as simply untrue.  Simultaneously, it’s easy to believe that waterboarding done under the auspices of a despotic regime for the sole purpose of maintaining tyranny is something inherently different and thus worthy of a different name.

Does this amount to “servitude” to the government and “cowardice”?   Maybe.  But I think it’s more complicated than that.

Michael Calderone at Yahoo News:

But the New York Times doesn’t completely buy the study’s conclusions. A spokesman told Yahoo! News that the paper “has written so much about the waterboarding issue that we believe the Kennedy School study is misleading.”

However, the Times acknowledged that political circumstances did play a role in the paper’s usage calls. “As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists “regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture.” He continued: “So that’s what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

Clearly, the Times doesn’t want to be perceived as putting its thumb on the scale on either side in the torture debate. That’s understandable, given traditional journalistic values aiming for neutrality and balance. But by not calling waterboarding torture — even though it is, and the paper itself defined it that way in the past — the Times created a factual contradiction between its newer work and its own archives.

More Sullivan:

But it is not an opinion that waterboarding is torture; it is a fact, recognized by everyone on the planet as such – and by the NYT in its news pages as such – for centuries. What we have here is an admission that the NYT did change its own established position to accommodate the Cheneyite right.

So their journalism is dictated by whatever any government says. In any dispute, their view is not: what is true? But: how can we preserve our access to the political right and not lose pro-torture readers? If you want a locus classicus for why the legacy media has collapsed, look no further.

So if anyone wants to get the NYT to use a different word in order to obfuscate the truth, all they need to do is make enough noise so there is a political dispute about a question. If there’s a political dispute, the NYT will retreat. And so we now know that its core ethos is ceding the meaning of words to others, rather than actually deciding for itself how to call torture torture. Orwell wrote about this in his classic “Politics and the English Language.” If newspapers will not defend the English language from the propaganda of war criminals, who will? And it is not as if they haven’t made this call before – when they routinely called waterboarding torture. They already had a view. They changed it so as not to offend. In so doing, they knowingly printed newspeak in their paper – not because they believed in it, but because someone else might.

This is not editing. It is surrender. It is not journalism; it is acquiescence to propaganda. It strikes me as much more egregious a failing than, say, the Jayson Blair scandal. Because it reaches to the very top, was a conscious decision and reveals the empty moral center in the most important newspaper in the country.

Brian Stelter at NYT:

Representatives for The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today said their newspapers declined to comment.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said the newspaper has written so much about the issue of waterboarding that, “I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.”

In an e-mail message on Thursday, Mr. Keller said that defenders of the practice of waterboarding, “including senior officials of the Bush administration,” insisted that it did not constitute torture.

“When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading The Times’ coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”

The Times does not have an “official, written rule on when or how to use the word “torture,” Phil Corbett, the newspaper’s standards editor, wrote in an e-mail message. “In general, when writing about disputed, contentious and politically loaded topics, we try to be precise, accurate and as neutral as possible; factual descriptions are often better than shorthand labels.”

Some critics, like Greg Sargent, a blogger for The Washington Post, asserted this week that The Times had indeed taken a side in a political dispute, and in a legal one as well.

“The decision to refrain from calling waterboarding ‘torture’ is tantamount to siding with the Bush administration’s claim that the act it acknowledged doing is not illegal under any statute,” Mr. Sargent wrote Thursday. “No one is saying the Times should have adopted the role of judge and jury and proclaimed the Bush administration officially guilty. Rather, the point is that by dropping use of the word ‘torture,’ it took the Bush position — against those who argued that the act Bush officials sanctioned is already agreed upon as illegal under the law.”

The Times and other newspapers have also written about the is-waterboarding-torture debate at length, and many columnists and editorial writers have called the practice a form of torture.

Although the study assessed only the four newspapers identified above, other major newspapers reached similar conclusions about the use of the word after waterboarding re-entered the national lexicon in 2004.

Asked for comment on Thursday, Cameron W. Barr, the national security editor for The Washington Post, wrote in an e-mail message, “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.

“But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique,” Mr. Barr wrote. “We gave prominence to stories reporting official determinations that waterboarding or other techniques constituted torture.”

The Harvard study made no claims about the reason for the change in depiction of waterboarding, but concluded that “the current debate cannot be so divorced from its historical roots.”

“The status quo ante was that waterboarding is torture, in American law, international law, and in the newspapers’ own words,” the students wrote. “Had the papers not changed their coverage, it would still have been called torture. By straying from that established norm, the newspapers imply disagreement with it, despite their claims to the contrary. In the context of their decades-long practice, the newspapers’ sudden equivocation on waterboarding can hardly be termed neutral.”

More Greenwald:

Whether an interrogation technique constitutes “torture” is what determines whether it is prohibited by long-standing international treaties, subject to mandatory prosecution, criminalized under American law, and scorned by all civilized people as one of the few remaining absolute taboos.  But to The New York Times‘ Executive Editor, the demand that torture be so described, and the complaint that the NYT ceased using the term the minute the Bush administration commanded it to, is just tendentious political correctness: nothing more than trivial semantic fixations on a “term of art” by effete leftists.  Rather obviously, it is the NYT itself which is guilty of extreme “political correctness” by referring to torture not as “torture” but with cleansing, normalizing, obfuscating euphemisms such as “the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks” and “intense interrogations.”  Intense.  As Rosen puts it:  “So, Bill Keller, ‘the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks’ is plainspeak and ‘torture’ is PC?  Got it.

Worse, to justify his paper’s conduct, Keller adds “that defenders of the practice of water-boarding, ‘including senior officials of the Bush administration,’ insisted that it did not constitute torture.”  Kudos to Keller for admitting who dictates what his newspaper says and does not say (redolent of how Bush’s summoning of NYT officials to the Oval Office caused the paper to refrain from reporting his illegal NSA program for a full year until after Bush was safely re-elected).  Senior Bush officials said it wasn’t torture; therefore, we had to stop telling our readers that it is.

And then there’s this, from Cameron Barr, National Security Editor of The Washington Post, which also ceased using “torture” on command:  “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.”  Could you imagine going into “journalism” with this cowardly attitude:  once an issue becomes “contentious” and one side begins contesting facts, I’m staying out of it, even if it means abandoning what we’ve recognized as fact for decades. And note how even today, in an interview rather than an article, Barr continues to use the government-subservient euphemism:  “waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.”  Just contemplate what it means, as Keller and Barr openly admit, that our government officials have veto power over the language which our “independent media” uses to describe what they do.

I’m not one who wishes for the death of newspapers, as they still perform valuable functions and employ some good journalists.  But I confess that episodes like this one tempt me towards that sentiment.  This isn’t a case where the NYT failed to rebut destructive government propaganda; it’s one where they affirmatively amplified and bolstered it, and are now demonizing their critics by invoking the most deranged rationale to justify what they did:  political correctness? And whatever else is true, there is no doubt the NYT played an active and vital role in enabling the two greatest American crimes of the last decade:  the attack on Iraq and the institutionalizing of a torture regime.  As usual, those who pompously prance around as watchdogs over political elites are their most devoted and useful servants.

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