Friday, July 02, 2010

Waterboarding is torture except when the U.S. government says it isn't and The New York Times and other major newspapers obediently stop calling it torture

I'm a day late getting to this -- thanks, Canada Day! -- but an extremely important study was released the other day showing that the mainstream media, including large outlets like The New York Times, essentially caved in to the government, that is, to the Bush-Cheney administration, when it came to reporting on waterboarding as torture:

Is waterboarding torture? If you picked up a major U.S. newspaper before 2004, the answer would likely be yes, according to a new Harvard University study.

But in the post-9/11 world, when the practice of immobilizing and virtually drowning detainees became a politically charged issue, that straightforward definition grew murky. The study, conducted by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, examined coverage in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and found a noticeable shift in language concerning 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 study noted. But the study found that things changed in the years when "war on terror" became part of the American lexicon.

The New York Times defined waterboarding as torture, or effectively implied that it was, 81.5 percent of the time in articles until 2004, the study found. But during 2002-2008 — when the George W. Bush White House made a concerted effort to normalize harsh interrogation methods for use on terror detainees — the Times "called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles." That’s 1.4 percent of the time.

The study also noted a disparity in how newspapers defined waterboarding when the United States employed the practice versus its use by other nations — in the latter instance, newspapers more readily called the practice torture.

So much, it would seem, for journalistic independence and integrity -- to the extent that the media had much left anyway. Given how the media establishment operates, after all, this is hardly all that surprising.

Andrew Sullivan is justifiably furious

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.


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.

When historians look back and try to understand how the US came to be a country that legitimizes torture, the New York Times will be seen to have played an important role in euphemizing it, enabling it, and entrenching it. The evidence shows conclusively that there is not a shred of argument behind the dramatic shift in 2002 - just plain cowardice.

In my view, the people who made that decision should resign. They have revealed that they are nothing but straws in the wind - in a time when moral clarity and courage were most needed.

Extremely well put. And I agree.

For more, see Steve Benen and, of course, Glenn Greenwald, who had a fantastic post on Wednesday responding to the study. As he correctly points out, such "compliant behavior makes overtly state-controlled media unnecessary."

It's great, and essential to any liberal democracy, to have freedom of the press. But what if the press doesn't want to be free?

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