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When It Comes to Waterboarding, Labels Matter
The press's failure to call waterboarding torture impedes honest discussion of the darkest years of the Bush presidency
On 18 September 1945, barely a month after the Japanese surrender had brought second world war to a close, a sickening story appeared on page two of the New York Times. Headlined "Shanghai Reveals Torture Secrets", the article, by Tillman Durdin, detailed torture techniques used against inmates of the Bridge House, a secret prison run by the Japanese in that Chinese city. The victims included Chinese and American soldiers, who suffered such horrors as lit cigarettes jammed up their nostrils and the use of electric shocks. Durdin continued:
"The water treatment was another violent torture the Japanese used in the Bridge House. The American [an unnamed source], explaining it, said his face was covered with a towel, except for the nostrils. Then a guard, using a tea kettle, poured water slowly down the victim's nostrils. If the victim did not swallow he drowned; if he swallowed he became bloated, suffering extreme abdominal pain."
This is waterboarding, and Durdin's report is significant mainly because of his straightforward description of it as torture. Not that anyone would have thought twice about that description back then.
According to a study released recently by the Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, the New York Times and other major papers invariably referred to waterboarding as torture until the Bush-Cheney administration began using it to extract information from suspected terrorists. After 2002, the word torture all but disappeared from news accounts of waterboarding. As the students who conducted the study observe:
"The results of this study demonstrate that there was a sudden, significant, shift in major print media's treatment of waterboarding at the beginning of the 21st century. The media's modern coverage of waterboarding did not begin in earnest until 2004, when the first stories about abuses at Abu Ghraib were released. After this point, articles most often used words such as 'harsh' or 'coercive' to describe waterboarding or simply gave the practice no treatment, rather than labelling it torture as they had done for the previous seven decades."
How pronounced was the shift? The study found that from the early 1930s until 1999, the New York Times characterised waterboarding as torture in 44 of 54 news articles on the subject (81.5%), and the Los Angeles Times in 26 of 27 articles (96.3%).
By contrast, from 2002 to 2008, the New York Times referred to waterboarding as torture in just two of 143 articles (1.4%); the LA Times, three of 63 (4.8%); the Wall Street Journal, one of 63 (1.6%); and USA Today, not at all.
Significantly, the study found no reluctance on the part of newspaper editors to label waterboarding as torture on their opinion pages. The logical conclusion is that news executives decided avoiding the "T" word had become an essential rule of objective news coverage - a rule they dared not violate for fear of being accused of liberal bias.
"This government does not torture people," George W Bush proclaimed in 2005. And there was little to contradict that statement in the largest American newspapers.
The Shorenstein study, published in April, did not became more widely known until last week, when the media were mainly preoccupied with the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.
New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, speaking through his paper's Media Decoder blog, called the study "somewhat misleading and tendentious," and added that referring to waterboarding as torture would have amounted to "taking sides in a political dispute".
Yet, before Bush and Dick Cheney came along, it wouldn't have occurred to anyone that waterboarding wasn't torture, as the Times's own archives show.
It's not as though we didn't know better. During the last presidential campaign, John McCain, himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam war, unloaded on fellow candidate Rudy Giuliani when the former New York mayor suggested that waterboarding wasn't torture. On another occasion, McCain pointed out, correctly, that waterboarding was among the crimes for which Japanese officers were executed after the second world war.
Does a single word matter? After all, Keller says of waterboarding that "we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture."
Keller's justification is similar to that voiced by National Public Radio ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, in an interview last year with her network's On the Media programme. "Why is it so important to call something torture?" she asked. "You know, when you describe the technique, I think that sounds like torture to me. Isn't it the job of the news media to put the facts out there, to give as much detailed information and to put it in context?"
I disagree with Keller and Shepard. In doing so, I am contradicting a little voice in my head telling me it's better to describe than to label. But this isn't about the rules of good writing. It's about understanding exactly what took place during the long, dark years of the Bush presidency. We have not even begun to come to terms with what was done in our name during that period. Apologists such as Liz Cheney criticise Barack Obama for being weak because he ended the barbaric practices championed by her father.
Words matter. If our largest newspapers had referred to waterboarding by its proper name, as they did in the decades leading up to the Bush years, we might be having a more honest discussion today about issues such as Guantánamo, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing fight against terrorism.