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NY Times Still Not Ready To Fully Use 'Torture'

People pass the New York Times building in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. The New York Times Co.'s stock rose on Thursda
People pass the New York Times building in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. The New York Times Co.'s stock rose on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, after an analyst raised his rating and price target on the shares. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The New York Times has yet to drop its hesitation about using the word "torture," judging by a high-profile article on Tuesday.

The article, by Scott Shane, detailed a new report--from a committee co-chaired by a Republican and a Democrat--which says that, as the Times quotes, "it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture" during the years following the 9/11 attacks.

Yet the paper is still apparently not ready to drop its own equivocations about the word. Shane used "brutality," "coercive interrogation methods" and "the torture question," among other phrases, instead of flatly labeling US interrogation techniques as torture.

The piece even went further than the Times usually does in acknowledging its hedging:

The question of whether those methods amounted to torture is a historically and legally momentous issue that has been debated for more than a decade inside and outside the government. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel wrote a series of legal opinions from 2002 to 2005 concluding that the methods were not torture if used under strict rules; all the memos were later withdrawn. News organizations have wrestled with whether to label the brutal methods unequivocally as torture in the face of some government officials' claims that they were not.

At the end of the piece, though, Shane appeared to contradict his earlier assertion that there was much of a debate, at least when it came to the report's authors:

The core of the report, however, may be an appendix: a detailed 22-page legal and historical analysis that explains why the task force concluded that what the United States did was torture. It offers dozens of legal cases in which similar treatment was prosecuted in the United States or denounced as torture by American officials when used by other countries.

A week before Shane's article, the paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, spoke to its standards editor Phillip Corbett about why the Times does not use "torture":

The debate over the word "torture," he said, has similar implications to the one Mr. Shane described with assassination. "The word torture, aside from its common sense meaning, has specific legal meaning and ramifications," Mr. Corbett said. "Part of the debate is on that very point."

The Times wants to "avoid making a legal judgment in the middle of a debate," he added.

That's essentially the conclusion that Constitution Project, which authored the torture report, came to:

The question as to whether U.S. forces and agents engaged in torture has been complicated by the existence of two vocal camps in the public debate. This has been particularly vexing for traditional journalists who are trained and accustomed to recording the arguments of both sides in a dispute without declaring one right and the other wrong.The public may simply perceive that there is no right side, as there are two equally fervent views held views on a subject, with substantially credentialed people on both sides.

For her part, Sullivan warned about the practice:

Although individual words and phrases may not amount to very much in the great flow produced each day, language matters. When news organizations accept the government's way of speaking, they seem to accept the government's way of thinking. In The Times, these decisions carry even more weight.

Word choices like these deserve thoughtful consideration - and, at times, some institutional soul-searching

In a blog post on Tuesday, former editor Bill Keller hinted that the situation might change at the Times:

Does the nonpartisan report made public today mean that what is "torture" in the Opinion pages can now be "torture" in the news pages? Has the noun shed some of its partisan freight? Watch that space.

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