Orwell, waterboarding and torture

Before the Bush-Cheney years, the New York Times and other large newspapers regularly referred to waterboarding as “torture.” After it was revealed that the United States was waterboarding terrorism suspects, those papers largely stopped. After all, President Bush explained in 2005, “This government does not torture people.”

So in true Orwellian fashion, editors decided that to describe waterboarding as torture would amount to a breach of objectivity, for no reason except that, all of a sudden, there were powerful people who disputed that characterization.

That is the conclusion of a paper released earlier this year by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Titled “Torture at the Times: Waterboarding in the Media” (pdf), the study includes the following findings:

  • From the early 1930s until 1999, the New York Times characterized waterboarding as torture in 44 of 54 articles on the subject (81.5 percent), and the Los Angeles Times in 26 of 27 articles (96.3 percent).
  • From 2002 to 2008, the New York Times referred to waterboarding as torture in just two of 143 articles (1.4 percent); the Los Angeles Times, three of 63 (4.8 percent); the Wall Street Journal, one of 63 (1.6 percent); and USA Today, not at all.
  • “[T]he newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.”

The study also finds that opinion writers at those papers were more likely to associate waterboarding with the T-word than were the news columns — further evidence that news editors deviated from the long-established understanding of what waterboarding really is in order to avoid being accused of anti-administration bias.

The study concludes:

The results of this study demonstrate that there was a sudden, significant, shift in major print media’s treatment of waterboarding at the beginning of the 21st century. The media’s modern coverage of waterboarding did not begin in earnest until 2004, when the first stories about abuses at Abu Ghraib were released. After this point, articles most often used words such as “harsh” or “coercive” to describe waterboarding or simply gave the practice no treatment, rather than labeling it torture as they had done for the previous seven decades.

The Shorenstein Center has documented a shocking abrogation of duty by our top newspapers in helping Americans understand what the Bush-Cheney administration was doing in their name.

The study came out in April. I’m writing about it now because the redoubtable Jay Rosen tweeted about it yesterday. This is important stuff, and I hope Rosen has given it the push it needs to become more widely discussed.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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2 thoughts on “Orwell, waterboarding and torture

  1. Bob Gardner

    ” further evidence that news editors deviated from the long-established understanding of what waterboarding really is in order to avoid being accused of anti-administration bias”

    and further evidence, I might add that we should should be on the lookout for bogus claims of “bias” no matter what the source.

  2. Neil Sagan

    The press should call it what it is. Does the report follow up with individual reporters and editors and ask them why they made the choice of words?

    The Justice Department should prosecute federal crimes. Scott Norton is prompting Torture Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for his dual role in 1) getting a conviction for Chicago police who tortured suspects in their custody and 2) his role in the investigation related to CIA and contractor waterboarding. Will Fitz show the backbone needed to pursue justice in the latter case? Read more here.

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