Tortured Semantics: Media Still Equivocating on Use of the Word “Torture”

Yesterday former Vice President Dick Cheney faced interviewer Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” for a twenty-minute chit-chat about the Senate’s summary of its 6000-page Torture Report. While much of the media coverage has focused on Cheney’s unapologetic defence of torture and kidnapping, I was struck more by the following Tweet from the interviewer himself:

Note the caveat: “what some have dubbed“. The interview itself contained a lengthy back-and-forth over the definition of torture, Cheney denying the CIA’s practices deserved that label, insisting they were authorized by the Justice Department (he ignored the Senate summary’s well-documented finding that CIA had provided Justice with inadequate information on which to base their legal opinions, but Todd didn’t mention that). For many, dare I say most, of us this “debate” ended long ago, if it ever happened in the first place. Waterboarding, alone, is a blatant criminal offence, even if – as Karl Rove said on Fox recently – the CIA tipped up the prisoners’ legs to stop water getting into their lungs (in fact, they did this so that more water entered their airways through the nostrils). And, now, whatever doubt there once was is unsustainable: the summary documents numerous acts of hardcore, Gestapo-variety torture, from chaining people’s hands over their heads for hours on end, to stripping them naked, to drowning them, to threatening them with drills and guns, to stuffing purified food up their rectums, to blasting them with music and depriving them of sleep for days on end, while making them stand, in some cases, on broken or injured limbs. But the media is still hesitant to call a spade a spade. It is no surprise to see Fox sticking to its guns and denying the methods amounted to torture. More striking is how supposedly “liberal” outlets, like CNN, NBC, NPR and others, are still relying on euphemisms or run-arounds to avoid using the t-word. Here are some examples. In August the New York Times changed its editorial policy, deciding to apply the word “torture” to Bush-era practices, but as I wrote in a new piece at British Journalism Review, they still won’t use the word in its full legal sense (which would mean branding the Bush, CIA torturers as criminals). But the Times has been reluctant to use “torture” even in the legally-neutral, watered-down sense it deems acceptable. So its reporter Peter Baker, in stories about the Senate’s report soon after its release, rarely used the word torture, in one case mentioning “techniques widely considered to be torture”. Scott Shane, another Times reporter (and, I should add, one of the best national security journalists in the US) also avoided the word, preferring “measures long considered torture”, although he did say John McCain was “tortured” by the North Vietnamese (in other words, foreigners torture, we don’t). In general, Times news correspondents have tip-toed awkwardly around a word they are now supposed to be using routinely. When “torture” does appear in their reporting – which it does – the word is mainly confined to headlines, footers below photographs, linked articles, or opinions attributed to others. It’s as if, by inserting “torture” into a headline, the paper is grandly proclaiming its liberal credentials, only to roll them back throughout the ensuing story. However, despite the paper’s hesitant deployment of the ‘t-word’, its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, recently opined: “Whether to use the term torture as opposed to, for example, harsh interrogation techniques, is now pretty obvious…And earlier this year, the executive editor, Dean Baquet, made a policy change, authorizing the use of the term. Clearly now, that judgment — while it should have come sooner — was right.” But, as the above demonstrates, policy has not really translated into practice. While the Times might have changed its ways to some degree, the Washington Post has explicitly refused to use “torture” when discussing American crimes. As FAIR Media‘s Peter Hart observed, a recent report by Greg Miller and Julie Tate (again, outstanding reporters) only applied the word once to CIA practices, and even then it was hedged with the usual “measures, deemed torture by program critics”. This was no coincidence, but company policy, as the Post‘s Philip Bump overtly acknowledged soon after the report’s release. Bump quotes the paper’s former national security editor (and current national editor), Cameron Barr: “”After the use of the term ‘torture became contentious,” Barr said, “we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration. But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique.”” Bump states, “That continues to be The Post’s policy”.

Article in British Journalism Review about the New York Times’ New Torture Policy

I have an article just out in British Journalism Review, “Let’s Call a Crime by its Real Name”, scrutinizing the New York Times’ new editorial policy on use of the word “torture” when referring to US interrogation policy. Here’s a link:

Obviously this is a topical subject, in light of the Senate’s release of its Torture Report last week, and I’ll be following up with some more media criticism on this blog (including a look at how the Times and other outlets are deploying the t-word).

Stay tuned!