"Torture" Study Reveals Appalling Cowardice of America's Newspapers

On the one hand, waterboarding is torture.

On the other hand....

I'm sorry -- there is no other hand. Waterboarding is torture,
period. It's been that way for decades -- it was torture when we
went after Japanese war criminals
who used the ancient and inhumane
interrogation tactic, it was torture when Pol Pot and some of
the worst dictators known to mankind used it against their own people,
and it was torture to the U.S.
military which once punished soldiers
who adopted the grim
practice.

And waterboarding was described as "torture," almost without fail, in
America's newspapers.

Until 2004, after the arrival of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and
their criminal notions of "enhanced interrogations." For four years --
in what would have to be the bizarro-world version of "speaking truth to
power," waterboarding was almost never torture on U.S. newsprint. Then
waterboarding-as-torture nearly made a mild comeback in journo-world,
until perpetrators like Cheney and Inquirer op-ed columnist John Yoo
began the big pushback, when American newspapers bravely turned their
tails and fled.

The sordid history is spelled out in a
significant new report
by the Kennedy School of Government at
Harvard (you can read
it as a PDF file
here). The report notes:

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.

The report also notes that waterboarding had constantly been referred
to as torture by newspapers when other nations did it, but when the
United States did it in the 2000s, it was, to paraphrase Richard Nixon,
not illegal. The study proves scientifically something we've been
talking about here at Attytood since Day One, about the tragic
consequences of the elevation of an unnatural notion of objectivity in
which newspapers abandoned any core human values -- even when it comes
to something as clear cut as torture -- to give equal moral weight to
both sides of an not-so-debatable issue (not to mention treating
scientific issues like climate changes in the same zombie-like manner
).

Never before in my adult life have I been so ashamed of my
profession, journalism.

There's already some good analysis of the report out there from the
likes of Glenn
Greenwald
and Adam
Serwer
, who writes:

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.

The irony that Serwer notes -- and I completely agree -- is that in
claiming they were working so hard not to take "a side," the journalists
who wouldn't call waterboarding "torture" were absolutely taking a side
and handing a victory to the Bush administration, which convinced
newspapers to stop unambiguously describing this crime as they had done
for decades prior to 2004. It's a tactic that has continued to this day.
It's the reason why Cheney-- who'd been nearly invisible when he was in
power -- and Yoo were suddenly all over the place beginning on Jan. 21,
2009, because they were desperately trying to keep framing this debate
as the newspapers had, that their torture tactics were a public,
political disagreement, and not a war crime.

And tragically, they succeeded. They were America's leaders, they
tortured, and they got away with it. And newspapers and other
journalists drove the getaway car.

I do think this report frames a much broader problem in America,
which is that we've lost our ability to distinguish right from wrong on
its most basic level, because of our need to filter everything through
some kind of bogus political prism. Look past torture, and look at the
Elena Kagan hearings down in Washington, and the
shameful way that Republican senators have desecrated the memory of the
late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall
. What made Marshall a
great American is that he started with an alienable truth -- that
segregation and other unequal treatment of blacks or other minorities
are a sin against mankind -- and that it was our duty not just as
Americans but as human beings to end that injustice by any peaceful
means necessary. If Marshall had behaved the way that the 2010
Republican Party would want him to act, forget the notion of an
African-American president -- there would be water fountains in some
American states where Barack Obama could not get a drink.

Increasingly, we're losing our perspective, maybe our minds. We have
candidates for the U.S. Congress comparing the taxes that we pay to
finance the U.S. military or to pay for public schools to
slavery, or to the Nazi-led Holocaust
. As Americans, we should all
seek higher ground over what we talk about when we talk about slavery,
and what we talk about when we talk about torture.

And yet even some of my own colleagues failed -- journalists who
started out with a mission to tell the truth and who got very, very lost
in a thicket of politics and perhaps self-importance along the way.

And that is beyond shameful.