Torture Is When Other Countries Do It

A study (4/10) by Harvard students discovered that waterboarding was commonly called torture by major newspapers–right until the United States was found to be practicing it. The study looked at coverage in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal.

As Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald put it, “We don’t need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task:Once theU.S. government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, U.S. media outlets dutifully cease using the term.”

The Harvard researchhas been widely discussed, which is certainly a good thing. Michael Calderone at Yahoo! has even managed to get the Times to respond, with a spokesperson for the paper saying thatthe Times “has written so much about the waterboarding issue that we believe the Kennedy School study is misleading.” Whatever that means.

It’s important to note for the record that the Times was called out on this in real time by FAIR. After one of the first major Times pieces addressing U.S. torture practices (5/13/04), we issued the Action Alert “‘Harsh Methods’ Aren’t Torture, Says the New York Times,” which pointed out:

The May 13 article, headlined “Harsh CIA Methods Cited in Top Qaeda Interrogation,” described “coercive interrogation methods” endorsed by the CIA and the Justice Department, including hooding, food and light deprivation, withholding medications, and “a technique known as ‘water boarding,’ in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.”

The article took pains to explain why, according to U.S. officials, such techniques do not constitute torture: “Defenders of the operation said the methods stopped short of torture, did not violate American anti-torture statutes and were necessary to fight a war against a nebulous enemy whose strength and intentions could only be gleaned by extracting information from often uncooperative detainees.”

The Times actually responded, with public editor Daniel Okrent more or less in agreement with FAIR’s position. When he asked Times editor Craig Whitney about the failure to call torture “torture,” he replied, “Now that you tell me people are reading things into our not using ‘torture’ in headlines, I’ll pay closer attention.”

FAIR also pointed out in its response to the Times that the failure to use the term torture was only part of the problem:

And FAIR’s complaint was not simply that the Times did not use the word ”torture” describe these interrogation methods (such as prolonged submersion), but that it quoted without rebuttal administration assertions that this was not torture, and seemed to echo these assertions in the reporters’ own voice.

FAIR’s magazine Extra! pointed out (5-6/08) that the term “waterboarding” seemed to come into play only in order to find an appropriate euphemism for what papers previously called “torture”:

Indeed, a search of newspaper archives reveals that until May 2004, the term had actually meant an aquatic sport similar to surfing. Meanwhile, the technique now known as “waterboarding”–in which the person being tortured is actually drowning, aspirating fluid to the point of being unable to breathe–had previously been called “water torture,” or simply “torture,” by the media.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.