‘Modifying Adjectives’ Replace Torture Facts at NYT

Brad Jacobson has an incisive take (Media Bloodhound, 4/29/09) on the consequences of mealy-mouthed torture language at the New York Times, where public editor Clark Hoyt

provides he said/she said examples to show how the public has reacted. But in doing so, in this context, he turns the very idea of news reporting–that it should be based on fact rather than opinion–on its head and, in effect, concedes that Times editors, on news stories as serious as torture, are allowing public sentiment to color their reports.

Robert Ofsevit of Oakland, Calif., asked, “Why canâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢t the New York Times call torture by its proper name?” He added, “Please find more backbone and fulfill your journalistic responsibilities by describing these immoral and illegal practices for what they were.” Theodore Murray of Cambridge, Mass., said that if the Times fails to adopt the word torture, “you perpetuate the fantasy that calling a thing by something other than its name will change the thing itself.”

But Cynthia Jacobson of Phoenix said the Times is “outrageously biased” to use a term like brutal. “The Times has simply placed itself as one actor in a political fight, not a neutral media outlet,” she wrote.

And herein lies the crux of what Hoyt–who is supposed to be the Paper of Record’s ombudsman, not its cheerleader–should be addressing in this column: …If the Times called techniques such as waterboarding torture in its reporting, which it should based on U.S. and international law, legal experts, historians, military judges, combat veterans and human rights organizations, and described, however briefly, what that torture entailed, then the use of modifying adjectives such as “harsh” or “brutal” would not only be superfluous but, in a news story, better left out.

In fact, Jacobson sees that if the Times insists on omitting the basic facts that “a) waterboarding is torture and b) torture is illegal,” instead “simultaneously ascribing arbitrary descriptors to it like ‘brutal’ or ‘harsh,'” then the paper “is not only denying its readers the necessary information to understand the issue but this denial may also lead directly to accusations of bias.”