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A Pakistani man reads the morning newspaper with front-page-coverage of the Paris attacks last week. (Photo: AFP)

Insult to Injury: A Tortuous Spin Cycle on US Torture

William Cohn

The long and winding road of headline news leads us to ignorance and docility. Consider the past month, in which the lead news item has shifted from U.S. government systemic use of torture and lies about it; to its claims that North Korean cyberterrorists hacked Sony, threatening U.S. national security; to unfair and imbalanced coverage following the attack in Paris by alleged Jihadi terrorists. Smoke and mirrors media propaganda of this sort happens all the time, but the past month offers a glaring case study.

In mid-December tough questions were being asked about enforcing the law and holding torturers accountable for their crimes. Many echoed the sentiments of ACLU Director Anthony Romero, who said the release of the Senate report on CIA torture "should be the beginning of a process, not the end," and called for the Dept. of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor.

Of course, the Senate report merely confirmed what was known by those not blinded by misplaced patriotism. But in providing an official record of torture it offered a valuable tool for accountability, largely because it contained admissions against interest by state actors laying an evidentiary basis for prosecutions. And so, despite torturers being treated as statesmen on weekend news programs, there was real concern that impunity would end, and the real story of war crimes at the highest levels would be told.

Within a week, the story shifted. Importantly, this helped ensure that the typical family sitting around the dinner table over the holidays would be discussing the threats posed by external enemies rather than domestic rot. The New York Times, the so-called "paper of record," faithfully parroted the Obama administration claim (absent any proof) that there was “99% certainty” that North Korea was responsible for hacking into the servers of Sony. Suddenly, Americans were talking about 'The Interview,' Kim Jong-un, and cyberterrorism, rather than war crimes, the CIA run-amok, and the deceit of Zero Dark Thirty and the Bush and Obama teams.

This was no aberration. Recall the reporting of Judy Miller as the NYT enabled the Bush war of choice in Iraq as it amplified unsupported claims of weapons of mass destruction, and more. The point being that the so-called liberal press plays an important role legitimizing the agenda of the national security state, especially when its help is most needed by the deep state. The bugle call of patriotism is heeded, resulting in a paralysis of skepticism; the abnegation of the role of an independent press in democracy.

Now, we are bombarded with coverage related to the attack on Charlie Hebdo, conveniently leading to more jingoism and fear-mongering. By delaying any follow-up to the Senate report on torture, the Obama team knew that other events – real or manufactured - would divert attention from torture. The truism “you reap what you sow” explains why the media coverage following the Paris attack has been so distorted, lacking any context other than that framed by Western powerbrokers.

Charlie aims to provoke, which is just what it did, for better and for worse. But to use the attack to support a clash of civilizations thesis is to deny the foreseeability of the violent response the cartoons begat given the history of Western warfare against Muslims. If Kant was right that every human life has dignity and value, then we must ask why the loss of 17 lives in Paris is so much more newsworthy than the needless loss of hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives in recent years. Free speech is complicated (how to reconcile the double standard of court rulings in Paris this week?), and mustn’t be relegated to serving imperial conquest.  

In his book, News: The Politics of Illusion, Lance W. Bennett’s “indexing theory” posits four information biases inherent in news coverage, all of which are evident over the past month: fragmentation (news presented as isolated events; news nuggets lacking context); dramatization (sensationalized coverage); personalization (the story is about individuals rather than society and its institutions); and, authority-disorder bias (official sources relied upon; if we fail to accept the arguments of those in power all hell will break loose).

This week, media attention is on police raids throughout Europe against alleged terror cells in the aftermath of the Paris attack. Cyberattacks are said to be part of the arsenal of these evildoers. This is just more of the same old fear factory. It is a tale told to us as idiots, full of sound and fury, perpetuating the status quo. It is meant to put human rights activists on the defensive when calling for prosecution of torturers. But when we step back and think, we can clearly see that torture makes us less safe, and the only way to stop this ineffective, unlawful and immoral practice is to punish the criminals who have tortured, and wounded us all. Clearly, we must dissent as the attempt to manufacture consent for barbarism continues.  

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

William Cohn

William A. Cohn is a member of the California Bar and the author of “How Free is Free Speech?” He lectures on law, ethics and critical thinking at the University of New York in Prague and is a visiting professor of jurisprudence at New York University.

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