A Harvard study on major U.S. newspapers shows that the papers, when reporting on waterboarding, were drastically inconsistent about when they did and did not describe it as torture. When used by non-U.S. countries or groups, it was almost always described as torture. But when the technique was used by the U.S. after 2000, it was almost never described as torture. Here are the findings and what they mean for U.S. media and its relationship to the government.
From the 1930s to 1999 the New York Times described waterboarding as torture 81% of the time; from 2002 to 08, 1.4% (pdf) http://jr.ly/znv7
- Misguided Attempt at 'Neutrality' The American Prospect's Adam Serwer blames "journalistic conventions of evenhandedness." He writes, "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. ... Of course, this attempt at 'neutrality' was, in and of itself, taking a side, if inadvertently."
- Media Follows Government's Lead Salon's Glenn Greenwald concludes, "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."
- 'Mouthpieces for War Criminals' The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan calls this "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."
- This Is How Waterboarding Became Accepted Liberal blogger Marcy Wheeler fumes, "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."
- Politics Overtook Morality The Philadelphia Inquirer's Will Bunch writes, "I do think this report frames a much broader problem in America, which is that we've lost our ability to distinguish right from wrong on its most basic level, because of our need to filter everything through some kind of bogus political prism. Look past torture, and look at the Elena Kagan hearings down in Washington, and the shameful way that Republican senators have desecrated the memory of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall."
- Media's Bogus 'Quest for Innocence' Media critic Jay Rosen explains, "The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus 'prove' in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things!"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.