By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word

The New York Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word takes an interesting turn today. The paper’s print and online editions diverge, and the Times manages to report on a debate over torture without quite acknowledging that the Bush administration, uh, tortured terrorism suspects.

The Times online

First, the headline. On the front page of the print edition you’ll find this: “Harsh Methods of Questioning Debated Again.” Online, though, is the considerably more frank “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture.” Below the headline is a story summary that says, “The raid that led to Bin Laden’s death has raised anew the issue of using torture to gain intelligence.”

On the face of it, that seems like a straightforward acknowledgement that some suspects were tortured, which would be something of a landmark for the Times. Two years ago, then-public editor Clark Hoyt wrote that Times editors had decided not to describe waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics as “torture,” although it would quote critics as saying so. Indeed, Hoyt added, the Times had come under some criticism even for adopting the word “brutal” to describe those methods.

The Times in print

When you read today’s story, by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, you learn that the “T”-word rule is still in effect. Here’s how it begins:

Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.

The “T”-word appears repeatedly in the story, but not as a description of what actually took place. Rather, it is in the context of “a national debate about torture,” Barack Obama’s past statements that waterboarding and other harsh methods were “torture,” efforts to avoid “a partisan battle over torture” and the like.

Among those quoted as claiming torture (OK, enhanced interrogation techniques) worked are Bush-era torture apologist John Yoo and U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., last seen subjecting Muslim-Americans to psychological torture at his Star Chamber hearings on Capitol Hill.

Now, let’s be clear. There is no evidence that waterboarding and other forms of torture had anything to do with producing the intelligence needed to track down Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it’s been reported that the worst of the Guantánamo terrorists, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, tried to divert interrogators away from bin Laden’s courier despite having been tortured repeatedly. In a withering takedown of the pro-torture argument, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen writes at the Atlantic:

It is entirely possible that some valuable intelligence information about bin Laden’s couriers was gleaned from long-ago waterboarding. And it is possible that some of this information was part of what Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday called a “mosaic” of information that led to bin Laden’s demise. But it is beyond doubt that the United States was able to track and then kill its arch enemy in Abbottabad based upon regular old gumshoe detective work, both traditional and innovative, that occurred years and years after the detainees in question were reportedly tortured. How exactly does that suffice to restore credibility to the pro-torture argument?

And just in case you’re not convinced that waterboarding is torture, consider the historical evidence, which I laid out in a piece for the Guardian last year. The Times frankly referred to waterboarding as torture in 1945 in reporting on its use against American prisoners of war who were held by the Japanese. No less an authority than U.S. Sen. John McCain has noted that some Japanese officers were executed for waterboarding prisoners. And Harvard’s Shorenstein Center last year produced a study showing that waterboarding was routinely described as torture until the Bush White House started using it against terrorism suspects.

The Times, as our leading news organization, has harmed the public discourse by refusing to call torture by its proper name. Today’s story is just another example of how it has tied itself into knots in its ongoing attempt to avoid saying the obvious.

More: This commentary has now been posted at the Guardian.

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  1. Gary Gallo

    I would like to known if, and how much torture has taken place by the US since President Obama has been in office?

  2. Dan, I think your analsysis on this subject has consistently left out the fact that a writer needs a broad term for interrogation techniques that are on a spectrum: some of the techniques applied to these detainees are ones that you would call torture, but others are not. A broader term, such as “harsh” or “brutal” or “coercive,” serves that important function.

    But the broader purpose of such words is not to take sides in a dispute. I understand that you don’t buy that argument. I’ve read your opinion columns on this. But impartiality is important to most of us writing news stories.

    The key is to describe what the techniques are, and today’s NYT story explains that in some cases it’s talking about waterboarding. Though the information is very sketchy about what techniques were applied when to whom. A word like “brutal” does convey what happened fairly, without verging off into editorial comment with “torture.”

    (Yes, I have written about this topic: For example, and

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: I’ve tried to show that refusing to use the word “torture” is in itself a form of editorial comment, and frankly, I think I’ve succeeded. I’d also point out that the argument you make, though interesting, is not one either the Times public editor or the NPR ombudsman has raised when this subject has come up.

  3. Perhaps, Dan, but it’s something any news reporter who has written about this topic has encountered.

    “I think I’ve succeeded” in my previous arguments = not a winning argument.

    What seems to bug you, and Jay Rosen, and other liberal commentators most about the desire for news reporters to remain impartial is your narrative that impartiality allowed the Iraq war to happen, allowed the Bush administration to torture detainees, etc. (Jay has blogged to this effect.) The cure for poor reporting is better reporting. The cure for reporting that shilled for administration points of view is better reporting. Not taking sides by turning news reporting into editorial commentary.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: The Shorenstein study is particularly instructive. It never occurred to anyone that waterboarding wasn’t torture until Bush administration officials started doing it. Since the subject is impartiality, how does waterboarding morph from torture when it’s done by the Japanese to Americans into not-torture when it’s done by Americans to suspected terrorists? And how is it good, impartial journalism to embrace both constructs?

      I don’t believe impartiality allowed the Iraq war to happen. I don’t even think the Bush administration was lying about WMDs. (Surprised?) But if you’d like to take your disagreements with Jay and attribute them to me, then by all means, go right ahead.

  4. “…Impartiality allowed the Iraq war to happen, allowed the Bush administration to torture detainees, etc. (Jay has blogged to this effect.) ”

    That’s news to me. Where did I say that? Got a link?

  5. Dan,

    On July 1 last year, you wrote: “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.”

    What was Jay Rosen writing that week? “Fixing The Ideology Problem in Our Political Press.” “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press.” And “Objectivity as a Form of Persuasion.”

    Here’s one of Rosen’s later pieces connecting the Iraq war with his distaste for impartiality:

    If you have writen opposing Rosen’s straw man of “the View from Nowhere,” I apologize for missing it.

    If you would truly be just as up in arms over the Times’ refusal to use an editorial word instead of a neutral word, if the topic was not one dear to your political viewpoint, I apologize.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: I agree with Jay on many things, and have cited him approvingly on any number of occasions. What you wrote was that Jay and I believe impartiality allowed the Iraq war to happen. I do not believe that, and, as you can now see, Jay says he doesn’t believe it, either. And for the record, I am unhappy with the Times for its refusal to use a neutral word — “torture” — instead of editorial euphemisms like “harsh interrogation techniques.” Although I’ll concede that “harsh” and “brutal” are a huge improvement over “enhanced.”

  6. Dan, Watch the video on the link I provided and then see if you can accept with a straight face that Jay doesn’t connect impartiality with the Iraq war. In a discussion of WikiLeaks, he bundles together the failures of the Bush Administration and a captive press.

    He has written many times deriding impartiality, not just opposing it but discounting the reasons for it, claiming it’s a pose. One example: “Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers.” Where’s the mention that reporters try to report and write impartially because we try to act impartially, because we are by nature not side-takers?

    Is that a view you support?

    Around the time of that video on WikiLeaks he began to go further, more explicitly tying his argument to the failures in reporting leading up to the Iraq War (though he had certainly written about those failures from the start). It’s my suspicion that he’s perceptively putting his finger on the Iraq War as a driving force in mistrust of “mainstream media” among liberals like himself. (Conservatives have their own drivers for distrusting us!)

    Enough about Jay. He can stick up for himself.

    My view remains: When there’s a debate about whether or not something is (fill in the blanks), to call it (fill in the blanks) is to take sides. And taking sides is not our job, not in news articles. It’s entirely appropriate to let others call it that, to include the arguments, but not to give the reader our verdict (by choice of a word) which argument is correct. Why would the reader possibly care what our verdict is? Why should we be rendering a verdict?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: I don’t expect you to come around to my point of view, but I’d appreciate it if you’d acknowledge it, since I’ve expressed it several times. Refusing to call torture torture is taking sides. It’s not impartial. It’s rendering a verdict.

  7. I did acknowledge your opinion, Dan, by disagreeing with it. You believe that it’s rendering a verdict not to call it torture. You’ve defined it that way. You’ve settled the issue before we start: “refusing to call torture torture.” That was the point of your piece. We all get that. Do you feel that any reader missed your point?

    But one can disagree with your point.

    Hey, other driver in the collission, why don’t you call negligence negligence and pay up? Well, whether or not it’s negligence is the issue, isn’t it.

    Whether or not it’s torture has been the subject of a healthy debate in this country since soon after Sept. 11, 2001, and is the subject of a healthy debate even today in print and on the airwaves. To join one side of that debate, to declare the issue settled and therefore to disregard the views of those holding views opposite to your own, is not “neutral.”

  8. BP Myers

    @Bill Dedman wrote: You believe that it’s rendering a verdict not to call it torture. You’ve defined it that way. You’ve settled the issue before we start.

    I think both objective reality and the Shorenstein study define it that way. It is inarguable that until America began using the technique, the New York Times had no qualms about referring to waterboarding as “torture.” It is inarguable that Japanese servicemen were executed for using this technique after World War II. It is inarguable that the Geneva Convention both defined and outlawed the technique as torture. The matter had been settled.

    I suppose the only question left to ask is if the New York Times was taking sides before they had no qualms about referring to waterboarding as torture (pre-America’s decision to use the technique) or afterward.

    Personally, I think objective reality answers that question too.

  9. Mike Benedict

    @Bill Dedman: It would seem the world, including the US, considered waterboarding torture until Pres. Bush and his cronies decided not to. So there was a standard definition, then a small group of folks tried to change the definition, and a somewhat larger group of their supporters tried to back them up them by loudly arguing (even now) that the new definition was the “right” one.

  10. Aaron Read

    Good Lord, this is like watching a tortured version (pun intended) of George Carlin’s routine assaults on “soft language” that has relentlessly crept into our vernacular.

  11. Back to “Impartiality allowed the Iraq war to happen, allowed the Bush administration to torture detainees, etc. (Jay has blogged to this effect.)”

    You made that up, Bill. You mentioned some pieces I wrote, but they provide no support for that claim. It is your fiction. Let me tell you what I have said. It’s not particularly controversial, because many journalists have said the same. The press failed to detect an inadequate case for war. This was a major failing. But I wouldn’t go so far as to assign responsibility for the war to the press, and I wouldn’t say that the press is involved in the causal chain that ended in torture. It simply failed to provide the check it says it can provide.

    You have no quotes. You have no links. You have nothing. You made it up. You should withdraw your claim because it’s false.

  12. First, Jay on impartiality:

    in which Jay argues that journalists are not by nature impartial, that they yearn to take sides, but have it forced on them by professional codes. (Notice there is no mention in this analysis of the idea that journalists don’t take sides because they believe that’s what’s right and proper, that it’s part of trying to be good public servants to a free people, etc.)

    A Q&A laying out his views against impartiality.

    There are many others.

    Then Jay on the Iraq war, WMDs, the Bush administration.

    I believe one of the many essays on this topic on his site suffices:

    in which Jay uses the a diagram from the Vietnam War era (“The Uncensored War”) in the current Iraq War context, using it to pillory “objectivity and balance.” He does not cast the failures of the press leading up to the Iraq War as failures to dig, failures of reporting technique, but failures derived from our desire for “objectivity and balance.” We failed to consider the arguments against the war as properly within the sphere of reasonable discussion, instead of the “sphere of deviance.”

    See how our desire for impartiality is key to his analysis, key to the conclusions he draws about how the war happened.

    “When (with some exceptions) political journalists failed properly to examine George W. Bush’s case for war in Iraq, they were making a category mistake. They treated Bush’s plan as part of the sphere of consensus. But even when Congress supports it, a case for war can never be removed from legitimate debate. That’s just a bad idea. Mentally placing the war’s opponents in the sphere of deviance was another category error. In politics, when people screw up like that, we can replace them: throw the bums out! we say.”

    Jay does, in other places on his site, refer generally to failures of “the watchdog press.” Such references can reasonably be interpreted to refer to failures to investigate, to do better reporting. But in this essay and others (I love the videos, Jay, but don’t you think Dewar’s is better with just a splash of water?), such as this one, he ties the failures of the press to hold the Bush Administration’s feet to the fire more directly to its desire for objectivity, fairness, impartiality, balance.

  13. Stephen Stein

    I gotta say, Bill, I don’t get that out of the Rosen “Audience Atomization” piece you cited – I get pretty much the opposite. True “impartiality” would allow Amy Goodman into the sphere of legitimate debate. The fact that she isn’t allowed is a symptom of the conditions that “allowed” the Iraq war.

  14. Just to follow up, here’s Jay when asked specifically about Guantanamo and treatment of detainees. Again, in his description, the press’s desire to be impartial or fair (here his word is “uninvolved”) is the root of the problem.

    Question from Glenn Greenwald on podcast: “Now, you see this model being applied all the time — I think currently right now, for instance, what has been relegated to the sphere of deviance is the idea that there ought to be criminal investigations and prosecutions of Bush officials for the laws that they broke, and even as you have things like yesterday, a high Bush official saying detainees at Guantanamo were tortured, and she used that word, and today Eric Holder saying that, techniques that the President himself admits to authorizing were in fact torture, which, if you put those simple propositions together, it means that high crimes were committed by the admissions of our top leaders, that the idea that they should be prosecuted, held accountable under the law, is something that you almost never hear in our mainstream discourse.

    “You don’t hear things like, questioning about the role that the US plays in blindly supporting Israel, all kinds of examples on the most significant questions. So, do you think that the sphere of deviance ends up being vastly larger than it should be? Or is the problem that it’s just sort of marginally bigger and some things end up within it that probably should be moved into the realm of legitimate debate?”

    Jay Rosen: “Here’s what I think. Journalists can decide, with a certain amount of discretion, to widen or narrow the sphere of legitimate debate. And, I think it’s never easy to determine who should be on the show, on the stage, quoted in your story. We shouldn’t make light of it – it’s a hard thing to know how wide the range of views should be.

    “But, we know they’re not going to do it well if they can’t take responsibility for that framing. And I think what happens in Washington journalism is that they need to display themselves as uninvolved in these decisions. And so the default position is to say not what should be a legitimate debate about torture and prosecution, but what’s likely to happen. What’s in the end going to be the decision that is made? What do the insiders think is realistic, is probable? And because that seems to them to be a non-ideological way of framing debate, they go with it. So what you really have here is the demand for an innocent press is what keeps us from having a responsible and politically intelligent press.”

    (There is more in that vein at that link, and in dozens of postings on Jay’s site.)

  15. Dan Kennedy

    @Bill: You’ve done some impressive research, but I don’t know that your links support the view that Jay believes that “impartiality allowed the Iraq war to happen, allowed the Bush administration to torture detainees, etc.” Nor do I think you’ve offered much to support your contention that describing waterboarding as torture magically morphed from impartial to opinionated once the Bush White House started doing it.

  16. Dan, I’ve made no contention such as this: “that describing waterboarding as torture magically morphed from impartial to opinionated once the Bush White House started doing it.”

    I doubt there was much debate in the U.S. about waterboarding when it was not being done by the U.S. That doesn’t seem surprising. When it was being done by the U.S., it had opponents and it had supporters in this country. That doesn’t seem surprising.

    One can take the political position that its support was merely political, convenient, and phony, but that’s a political argument.

    There was a debate. As I’ve written, that debate was strong among different elements of U.S. forces at Guantanamo itself. Not just on talk radio, but between different elements of the U.S. military (those trying to get intelligence info supported it, generally, and those trying to make a criminal case with evidence that would be credible and stand up in court opposed it, generally). It was a genuine debate.

    To say, as the Shorenstein study does, that there was no debate before, is interesting. But it does not invalidate the fact that since 2001 there has been a genuine debate, on the merits, on principles.

    To take sides in that debate is not our job. (By us, I mean news reporters. Opinion writers, bloggers, journalism educators, etc., have at it.)

    As for Jay, I’m surprised that even he can’t see his own point. This line of argument infuses many of the essays on his site from the past several years. He’s asked, why isn’t the abuse of detainees being challenged? And his answer is to tie that to the press trying to be impartial. He’s analyzing how the Gulf War happened, and he again points to the press’s impartiality leading it astray, so it fails to challenge the Bush administration arguments. How is that not a statement that this press blindness allowed the war and the detainee abuse to happen, to continue unchallenged, etc? He may be right in this critique, or he may be wrong, but it is a healthy part of the critique that he lays out in blog posts, essays, podcasts, videos.

  17. Keep going, man. The more links you cite the more obvious it becomes to anyone who reads them that I have never made the point you said I made: that “impartiality allowed the Iraq war to happen, allowed the Bush administration to torture detainees, etc.” So please, got more?

  18. Mike Rice

    Whatever it takes – call it what you wish. Innocent lives are at stake.

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