Torture and the Times

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, which tied itself in linguistic knots during the Bush years to avoid describing waterboarding as torture, splashed this headline on Thursday's front page: "Portrayal of C.I.A. Torture in Bin Laden Film Reopens a Debate."

These days, the "debate" in the media is less about whether waterboarding is a form of torture, but more about the portrayal of torture in the soon-to-be-released film Zero Dark Thirty and whether information provided during such interrogations helped lead to Osama bin Laden. Several top senators on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees dismiss the idea that torture was a key factor.

As the Zero Dark Thirty controversy rages, a new study published Wednesday by ReThink Media looks closely at U.S. media coverage of torture and how news outlets often opt for euphemisms such as "enhanced interrogation," "harsh interrogation," or "special techniques." The study, which examined 48 outlets over the past two years, found that the Times used the word "torture" 60.4 percent of the time, while opting for torture euphemisms 39.6 percent.

That's a departure from the Bush years, where the Times largely avoided using the word "torture" in its news coverage, at a time when administration officials argued that techniques such as waterboarding were not torture. A 2010 Harvard University study found that the Times had characterized waterboarding as torture numerous times in past decades, but only in two of 143 articles published from 2002 to 2008.

At the time of the 2010 study's release, a Times spokesman acknowledged to me that politics played a role in word choice when covering the torture debate. (My Yahoo! News piece below via Open Left).

"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."

Clearly, the Times doesn't want to be perceived as putting its thumb on the scale on either side in the torture debate. That's understandable, given traditional journalistic values aiming for neutrality and balance. But by not calling waterboarding torture -- even though it is, and the paper itself defined it that way in the past -- the Times created a factual contradiction between its newer work and its own archives.

During Attorney General Eric Holder's confirmation hearings in Jan. 2009, he defined waterboarding as torture, a break from the previous administration. The Times appears to have changed with the times, according to these two studies, which suggest more of a willingness on the paper's part to use the word torture when there isn't an administration pushing back.

I asked Times standards editor Phil Corbett about today's piece by reporter Scott Shane, in the context of this most recent study and the paper's description of "torture" during the Bush and Obama administrations. Corbett said there "hasn't been any overall rethinking for us on this," before speaking specifically about Shane's piece.

"Today's story described the movie's portrayal, and recounted again the whole debate about what constitutes 'torture.' In that context, I think our language seemed fine. When we are discussing the legal and political fight over past C.I.A. practices -- and the dispute over whether they should be formally characterized as torture -- we would continue to be precise and try to avoid seeming to take sides."

"More generally, contrary to what some people think, we don't typically impose blanket 'bans' on certain words, or issue lists of pre-approved terms that reporters must use. We try to be accurate, careful, fair and as specific as possible. That goes for this topic, too, and I think Scott and his colleagues have consistently succeeded in that effort."