The New York Times has long refused to call American torture by its rightful name; torture. Why? Because government officials say it’s not torture and therefore it ain’t.
The paper’s Public Editor today publishes an examination of this putrid policy and argues that the editors should drop the pretense of worrying about the feelings and position of officials and simply be honest; if they want to be real journalists, of course:
The controversy over The Times’s use of the term “torture,” which was discussed two years ago by my predecessor, Clark Hoyt, has its roots in the newsroom’s aspiration to be impartial in a dispute that is both political and legal.
The Bush administration offered formal legal opinions that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” it authorized were not torture under United States law. The Times adopted the view that labeling these as “torture” in news articles could create the appearance of taking sides.
Journalistically, The Times’s reasoning went, it was better to use descriptive terms. At the time of Mr. Hoyt’s column, The Times’s preferred adjective was in the process of migrating from “harsh” to “brutal.”
Upstairs in the editorial department, meanwhile, things have been clearer and easier all along. “We made the decision early and relatively quickly: Waterboarding, specifically, has been considered torture for a long time,” said Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, referring to international protocols.
“The Bush people were going out of their way to redefine the word ‘torture.’ We felt that our using the word ‘torture’ was really important.”
The editorial department had the easier path: it could just weigh in with an opinion. In the newsroom, though, taking sides was the wrong thing to do. The result was that The Times, in the view of some, appeared to mince words.
Other news organizations took the same approach in their news columns. A study by students at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy found that The Times and The Los Angeles Times drastically shifted their treatment of waterboarding after 9/11, moving away from calling it torture after nearly a century of doing so.
Is there a path out of this wilderness? I believe so.
The Times should use the term “torture” more directly, using it on first reference when the discussion is about — and there’s no other word for it — torture. The debate was never whether Bin Laden was found because of brutal interrogations: it was whether he was found because of torture. More narrowly, the word is appropriate when describing techniques traditionally considered torture, waterboarding being the obvious example. Reasonable fairness can be achieved by adding caveats that acknowledge the Bush camp’s view of its narrow legal definition.
This approach avoids the appearance of mincing words and is well grounded in Americans’ understanding of torture in the historical and moral sense.