Cracking writing by Andrew Sullivan on the gutlessness of the supposed paper of record:
There was something almost poignant about a post yesterday by former NYT executive editor Bill Keller. It’s his way of explaining why he decided the Times could not use the plain word ‘torture’ to describe torture – when it was conducted by the Bush administration. He conflates the issue with the other t-word, terrorism, as if there were some kind of analogy. There isn’t. What happened in Benghazi was an act of terror, as Obama said the following day. What happened in Boston was an act of terror. The only circumspection about the word should be in the immediate aftermath of explosions when it seems to me prudent not to jump to conclusions. So the fire at the JFK Library Monday was not an act of terror.
The most it can take to reach the conclusion about terror is a few days. Yet the New York Times has refused to use the word ‘torture’ for years in its news pages and is still avoiding it. Keller was behind that decision. Future historians of the press will note how the most powerful single journalistic institution in the country simply caved to government and partisan pressure – even on the use of the English language.
So why Keller’s bizarre refusal to call it by its proper name? The reason is simple. Keller knew that publishing the word torture with respect to president Bush and his administration was a factual allegation of war crimes. Such an accusation would have caused all the usual suspects to deride the NYT as a left-liberal rag, with a partisan agenda. There would have been huge partisan political blowback. It might also have prevented NYT reporters from getting access to anyone in the Bush administration.
Let me just say that I have a different view of the Fourth Estate than Keller does. I believe that a newspaper should report what it can in plain English, without regard to anyone else’s views on the matter, and whatever the positions of the political parties. It should publish what it deems to be true by its own methods and conclusions.
Keller, in contrast, believes a newspaper should not publish the truth if one political party has decided – arbitrarily and in accord with its own legal self-interests – that there is a “debate” about it. It’s an almost classic Fallowsian “false equivalence” moment. There is, for example, a debate about evolution. Does the NYT use a euphemism because the theory of natural selection is fiercely opposed by a large number of Americans? Does it routinely refer to “the theory of natural selection which many Americans dispute”. Of course not. They can report on polarizing issues in plain English in most cases. But not when something as profound as a president committing war crimes is concerned. Not, in other words, when you really need an independent and free press.
To take another specific example of the US government taking this approach to torture, look at the asylum cases decided by the Justice Department and the immigration services under the Department of Homeland Security. You can examine the rules here.There is simply no doubt that an asylum-seeker who had evidence of being waterboarded by a foreign government would be granted asylum by the US. Because he had been tortured. Or imagine if an American soldier were captured by Iran and water-boarded. Would the New York Times refuse to say he was tortured? Seriously?
Keller knew the truth and his newspaper did sterling work in uncovering it. But he refused to tell the legal truth in plain English because he couldn’t take the political whirlwind that would ensue. He’s now searching for an excuse to decide that the issue was once vague but now clear and so we can all move along quietly please.
I’m sorry, but no. Keller needs to take responsibility for a key failure of nerve at a vital moment in the history of basic human rights. In this he is sadly like the president: against torture, except when it might mean serious political headwinds. History will condemn them both – but nothing is more damaging to the reputation of a newspaper than cowardice and equivocation in the face of such glaringly obvious facts.