It is common in every age for humanity to mourn the passing of morality. And in the interest of perspective, I guess it’s appropriate to point out that no one we know of has been operating gas chambers and crematoria lately.
That said, we have had, in the fairly recent past and possibly continuing as I type, people in our government and military who have carried out torture and other war crimes and crimes against humanity, and leaders in this country who have ordered torture and other war crimes and crimes against humanity. This fact that has been strongly suspected since late 2003 or early 2004 and beyond doubt since President Bush’s public acknowledgement in April 2008 that he ordered at least one specific instance of torture, the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, an admission he repeated publicly as recently as one month ago.
Only here’s the thing. A study by Harvard students of the four largest U.S. papers by circulation found that between the 1930s and 2004, they overwhelmingly called waterboarding torture, often explicitly. But when the Bush administration started pushing back, a funny thing happened (pdf):
… 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.
Now, why might these phenomena have occurred?
One simple answer is that mainstream media are not the liberal, America-hating institutions their right-wing critics always claim. Indeed, they never have been. That’s factual enough, as far as it goes.
But there’s a bigger problem here.
Conservatives like to accuse liberals of not having any standards or values, of “moral relativism,” of believing there were no objective facts, only different individual perspectives. But in fact, the so-called liberal media, for about three-quarters of a century, had a pretty damn clear standard and value with respect to waterboarding: It was torture, and it was wrong, and it was a crime, and that was a fact.
Simple: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney started pushing back. And the news media chose not to believe their own lyin’ eyes. But don’t take my word for it. Take … well, the word of an anonymous spokesman for The New York Times in this story from Yahoo!‘s Michael Calderone:
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.”
So by this standard of logic, if the White House says 2 + 2 = 5, The New York Times repeats that position uncritically, justifying that action by saying that using a particular numerical fact “amounts to taking sides in a political dispute. “Fit[ting] all the moral and legal definitions of torture” might be good enough for The New York Times’ opinion pages, but apparently that’s not good enough for those elevated beings who breathe the rarified air of the Times newsroom, even when the “legal definition of torture” is simple enough that even a New York Times reporter ought to be able to understand it:
… torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
For 75 years or more, Americans had no trouble understanding that waterboarding met this definition. All of a sudden, however, along come Bush and Cheney and the Times isn’t so sure. Hey, Times, here’s a clue, free of charge: Not all political disputes are honest differences of opinion. Some of them involve one side or the other making assertions of fact that are objectively false, either because they’re shooting from the hip or because they’re lying. And guess what a journalist’s job is? To report when that happens, you asshats.
The Times and the other major papers surveyed have failed to do a journalist’s job. Andrew Sullivan, the Atlantic blogger who recently publicized the weeks-old Harvard study, comments:
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.
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.
Which is fine, as far as it goes. But I would argue that the Times has even bigger problems, especially if you believe in an afterlife. Philly Daily News blogger Will Bunch gets at this:
… in claiming they were working so hard not to take “a side,” the journalists who wouldn’t call waterboarding “torture” were absolutely taking a side and handing a victory to the Bush administration, which convinced newspapers to stop unambiguously describing this crime as they had done for decades prior to 2004. It’s a tactic that has continued to this day. It’s the reason why Cheney — who’d been nearly invisible when he was in power — and [former Bush administration lawyer John] Yoo were suddenly all over the place beginning on Jan. 21, 2009, because they were desperately trying to keep framing this debate as the newspapers had, that their torture tactics were a public, political disagreement, and not a war crime.
And tragically, they succeeded. They were America’s leaders, they tortured, and they got away with it. And newspapers and other journalists drove the getaway car.
It’s not just that they can’t do journalism right, although that is certainly true and has awful ramifications for our country’s future. It’s that they’ve lost even the most basic grasp of the difference between right and wrong and are suffering absolutely no consequences for having done so.