Yesterday, we made note of a new study from the Kennedy School of Government that found that America's major newspapers, after decades of reliably and accurately referring to waterboarding as torture, suddenly stopped doing so around 2002, when America started waterboarding people like the dickens! Adam Serwer offered this comment on the matter:
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. To borrow John Holbo's formulation, the media, confronted with the group think of two sides of an argument, decided to eliminate the "think" part of the equation so they could be "fair" to both groups.
Well, today Yahoo's Michael Calderone has comment from a New York Times spokesman, who -- while maintaining that the Times's official position is that the study is "misleading" -- nevertheless comes right out and confirms that they are in fact precisely the unrescueable cowards that Adam Serwer says they are:
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."
Isn't that great? Waterboarding is totally torture so long as we are "outside of the news pages," where journalists at the Times are free to believe that waterboarding "fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture." And, obviously, they want to make it clear that they feel that they deserve credit for having these important feelings about morality, despite the fact that they are too terrified to evince these principles in the "news pages" of a "newspaper" that's best known for publishing "pages of news."
[What's especially dumb about all of this, is that waterboarding wouldn't be newsworthy at all if it weren't torture. If waterboarding was nothing more than say, a light splashing of water to the face, there would be no stories written about it at all. But for decades the New York Times wrote stories about waterboarding specifically because it was torture, referring to it as "torture."]
Of course, none of this explains the other side to the study, which found that, "In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible." It's pretty clear that at the New York Times, as a matter of policy, when someone other than the United States straps a person to a board and performs a harrowing simulation of drowning on them to extract information or mete out punishment, things get a whole lot clearer, morally and legally -- and then suddenly, the very same "news pages" become a lot braver.
At any rate, the big takeaway here is that as long as you are able to frame immorality as an interesting point of view in a political dispute, the New York Times is ready to suspend decades of crystal-clear judgment, subserviently.
Study: Newspapers stopped describing waterboarding as 'torture' during Bush years [Yahoo's Newsroom]