If you've ever had the funny feeling that the media has largely bent over backwards to normalize and legitimize the practice of waterboarding once the United States started doing it, guess what? You've had good reason! It's all laid out in a new study from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, highlighted today by Glenn Greenwald over at Salon.
There are two key findings worth highlighting. First, did it seem like around 2004, major newspapers just stopped referring to waterboarding as torture, after decades of properly categorizing it as such? Why yes, they did!
The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930's until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, 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.
Wow. So, not long ago, America's major newspapers basically decided that waterboarding was somehow okay. American waterboarding, that is! In the same time frame, the same newspapers made it clear that if any other country practiced waterboarding, it was torture.
In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture is a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. 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. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.
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.
But how could these newspapers have afforded to lose their access to these people, with this very interesting point of view?
New study documents media's servitude to government [Glenn Greenwald]
When Is Torture Not Torture? [Adam Serwer]