NYT Drops Government-Preferred Euphemisms and Will Now Call Torture "Torture"

'Torture' is 'torture' at the venerable New York Times... finally. (Photo: flickr / cc / Scott Beale)

NYT Drops Government-Preferred Euphemisms and Will Now Call Torture "Torture"

Newspaper's executive Dean Baquet said change in policy comes after urging from newsroom reporters and says terminology not quite so "murky" as it once appeared to them

In an announcement on Thursday, the New York Times' executive editor Dean Baquet said the widely-read newspaper--at the urging of reporters in the newsroom--will end its long-held and widely criticized practice of calling torture by the U.S. government "enhanced interogation techniques" and instead call it by its "common" name: torture.

In his statement posted on the paper's website, Baquet said:

Over the past few months, reporters and editors of The Times have debated a subject that has come up regularly ever since the world learned of the C.I.A.'s brutal questioning of terrorism suspects: whether to call the practices torture.

When the first revelations emerged a decade ago, the situation was murky. The details about what the Central Intelligence Agency did in its interrogation rooms were vague. The word "torture" had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of "torture." The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.

But as we have covered the recent fight over the Senate report on the C.I.A.'s interrogation program - which is expected to be the most definitive accounting of the program to date - reporters and editors have revisited the issue. Over time, the landscape has shifted. Far more is now understood, such as that the C.I.A. inflicted the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times on a single detainee and that other techniques, such as locking a prisoner in a claustrophobic box, prolonged sleep deprivation and shackling people's bodies into painful positions, were routinely employed in an effort to break their wills to resist interrogation.

Strikingly, it was the Times itself which reported that the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed '183 times' in 2009, as it credited national security blogger Marcy Wheeler who noticed the shocking detail in a 2005 Bush administration memo.

Saying "the landscape has shifted" in recent months, Baquet said the Times' reporters will "recalibrate their languge" by using "the word 'torture' to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information."

Welcoming the decision, but calling Baquet's reasoning "troubling," Paul Waldman at the American Prospectresponded:

First, the part about learning the extent of the torture is absolutely irrelevant to what you call it. The implication is that if a prisoner had been waterboarded 10 times, then you might not call it torture, but since it was 183 times, you would. That's plainly absurd.

But more importantly, when Baquet says the Times "avoided a label that was still in dispute," what he's saying is that the paper essentially outsourced its judgment on what is and isn't torture to the Bush administration. All that was required to put the matter "in dispute" was for the administration to declare, beyond all reason and common sense, that things like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and stress positions aren't torture, and the Times threw up its hands and said: "Well, we can't call that torture anymore, because now that's in dispute." So, presumably, if tomorrow the Obama administration decided to refer to Republicans as "the Hater party," the Times would no longer use the term "Republican" in its pages, because now that's "in dispute."

Other critics of the paper were caught between expressing dismay that it has taken such a long time to finally drop the use of government-preferred euphemisms and actually congratulating Baquet for simply making the right decision, despite the late date.

According to the Guardian:

The Times has reported on CIA waterboarding and sleep deprivation techniques since at least six years ago, largely using language such as "harsh interrogation" and "brutal treatment". In 2009, the Times published an article titled "Explaining and Authorizing Specific Interrogation Techniques", which drew on information as far back as 2002, and described physical abuse, "dietary manipulation", "confinement with insects" and "walling" in detail, with extensive quotes from Justice Department documents. Many Times reports on CIA practices have pointed out that officials and critics "described [the techniques] as illegal torture".

The Associated Press by and large uses specific descriptions of techniques and couches them with context, such as "The CIA voluntarily dropped the use of waterboarding, which has a long history as a torture tactic, from its arsenal of techniques after 2005."

The Guardian does not have specific guidelines with regard to the use of the word, but nearly always prioritizes its common meaning - which Baquet concisely defines as when "interrogators [inflict] pain on a prisoner in an effort to gain information" - surrounded by context to make attendant details and issues as clear as possible.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.