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NY Times's excuse for not calling waterboarding "torture" doesn't hold water

By now you've heard about that surprising new Harvard study finding that news orgs that routinely called waterboarding "torture" for many years suddenly shifted away from the term after it became public that the Bush administration had sanctioned it.

The New York Times has now explained the reasoning behind its decision, and it's pretty surprising. The paper disputed the study's accuracy, but it gave Michael Calderone a statement acknowledging the shift and conceding that Bush administration entreaties were partly responsible:

"As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture," a Times spokesman said in a statement.

"When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture."

The Times' explanation is that once Bush officials started arguing that waterboarding wasn't torture, the only way to avoid taking sides was to stop using the word. But here's the problem: Not using the word also consitutes taking a side: That of the Bush administration.

That's because this debate wasn't merely a semantic one. It was occuring in a legal context.

The administration's critics pointed out that the decision to approve waterboarding was illegal under international law designating it torture. The Bush administration argued that waterboarding isn't torture in order to argue that it isn't illegal.

The decision to refrain from calling waterboarding "torture" is tantamount to siding with the Bush administration's claim that the act it acknowledged doing is not illegal under any statute. No one is saying the Times should have adopted the role of judge and jury and proclaimed the Bush administration officially guilty. Rather, the point is that by dropping use of the word "torture," it took the Bush position -- against those who argued that the act Bush officials sanctioned is already agreed upon as illegal under the law.

Think of it this way: We all agree that pickpocketing constitutes "theft." A pickpocket doesn't get to come along and argue: "No, what I did isn't theft, it's merely pickpocketing, and therefore it isn't illegal." Any newspaper that played along with a pickpocket's demand to stop using the word "theft" would be taking the pickpocket's side, not occupying any middle ground. There is no middle ground here.

By Greg Sargent  |  July 1, 2010; 4:06 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy and national security , Political media  
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Next: Happy Hour Roundup


Another commenter recently observed that facts do have a liberal bias. NYT does seem to have a thin skin about charges of liberal bias, so I can appreciate them being careful with controversial things like facts.

It also reminds me of how laughable it is when right-wingers accuse the MSM of having a liberal bias.

Posted by: jzap | July 1, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Wow, they would have been better off just not mentioning the report at all. This response makes them look terrible.

Will we stop hearing people call it a liberal media now? No.

Posted by: TheBBQChickenMadness | July 1, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Just shows how well the right wing war on the media has worked. What an embarrassment.

Posted by: schrodingerscat | July 1, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Yep. That's the point about up-is-downism. If you get enough people claiming that up is down, the MSM will start treating it as a he-said-she-said affair. Viewpoints from both sides will get equal treatment so as to not create an appearance of bias.

Posted by: jzap | July 1, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Greg, this is a very good post and gets to the heart of the way in which the goalposts have been moved in such a way that mainstream thought is barely recognizable compared to what it was before the create your own reality crowd gained such sway.

Posted by: AllButCertain | July 1, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

God, it is pathetic that they are pretending NOT using the word is a neutral stance. Day is day, night is night, torture is torture. It's not taking sides to report it, it's simply presenting the facts.

And this: "we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture."

I don't recall them ever stating it this baldly, saying specifically that basically everyone considers this torture. I remember them saying, occasionally, that Bush's political opponents called it torture. I remember them saying, occasionally, that a lot of people think it's a very bad thing without using the specific _word_ of torture.

Not to mention, they're STILL soft-pedaling this. It's not just " American tradition." This makes it sound like the equivalent of putting on aristocratic airs or sleeping around, both things which are denounced in the American tradition. It's actually been PROSECUTED BY AMERICANS as a WAR CRIME. We have EXECUTED people for doing this!

Torture is torture. It doesn't stop being torture just because your government is doing it. This is not a question of taking political sides, it's a question of reporting the FACTS.

Really I can't imagine a circumstance where the NYT would write: "shooting your mother in the head has been denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of murder."

I mean, it's murder. And this is torture. We can take political positions on whether it was justified or necessary, but we can't change the fact of what it is.

Posted by: theorajones1 | July 1, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Every time I hear a story like this -- residual bullsht from the GWB-era tyranny -- it literally makes me want to scream.

Our country will never be the same after what the Republicans have done to it. Never.

Posted by: Ethan2010 | July 1, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Greg, great framing on your part. NYT missed the ball on this one and no amount of excuses obfuscate that fact.

Also, DDay has a nice run down on Obama's immigration speech if you're interested for Happy Hour.

Posted by: lmsinca | July 1, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the reminder, after a week's absence on my part, of how intellectually bankrupt this blog -- and its commenters -- are.

The echo chamber of absurdity lives on -- chattering little robots manipulated by the propogandists of the JournoList meta-chamber. Enjoy your collective and delusional hissy fit, while the sane world laughs.

Posted by: quarterback1 | July 1, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

All, Happy Hour roundup posted:

and thx lmisinca, I'll add the DDay thing to the HHR

Posted by: Greg Sargent | July 1, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

I think it is because the NYT, WaPo, and all news networks in broadcasting are accomplices to the criminal activities carried out by the Bush Administration that we will never hear an honest appraisal of that time period. As Obama continues these policies and expands them, the Orwellian doublethink and doublespeak will simply continue.

Posted by: sparkplug1 | July 1, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

The NYTs reveals with this argument that it would have felt very comfortable operating a newspaper in Nazi Germany.

Posted by: ktktk | July 1, 2010 11:39 PM | Report abuse

Seriously, how could anyone who has paid any attention to this issue at all possibly characterize the Harvard study as "surprising"??????

Posted by: vinsons | July 2, 2010 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Torture, including waterboarding, stress positions, temperature extremes and sensory deprivation, is a war crime by any pre-9/11 standards. Opposition to all forms of torture USED to be a sign of strength... an honorable, decent position. Now, according to some rightwing zealots like the scumbag Charles Krauthammer, opposition to torture damned near equals treason.

Posted by: aartmann112004 | July 2, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Hey, I didn't rob that bank! It was merely enhanced income augmentation!

Posted by: snrub | July 2, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Our Liberal Media at work.

Posted by: lol-lol | July 2, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

You know what other media outlet did the exact same thing? The Washington Post.

Greg, maybe you could take you're own publication to task, before pointing fingers at the NYTimes?

Posted by: lgraham1 | July 2, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Torture is the name of a crime and we are all innocent until proven guilty. Someone cannot be said to be guilty of theft until they are convicted of theft.

I would certainly call Bush/Cheney torturers in an opinion piece but not in a reporting story. Similarly, I have no problem calling O.J. a murderer when I am expressing my view but I simply cannot do that in a news article because he was never convicted of murder.

We can describe someone's behavior or alleged behavior in detail but we cannot characterize such behavior with conclusory, legal terminology until there is a conviction.

Posted by: comments99 | July 2, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

"We can describe someone's behavior or alleged behavior in detail but we cannot characterize such behavior with conclusory, legal terminology until there is a conviction." Gee, I wish this was true for the detainees at Gitmo. None of them have been convicted of anything.

Posted by: mwamp | July 2, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Something that I think should have been included in this post: Calderone's characterization of the Times' coverage is a little misleading. I believe that "[pointing] out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture," falls under what the research team codified as "Others Calling It Torture,"

to quote the research:

"The NY Times used softer treatment in 66 of 281 total news articles. Of those 66 articles, 30 (45.5%) also quoted others calling the practice torture. In the LA Times, softer treatment was used in 29 of 134 total news articles. Softer treatment overlapped with others calling it torture in 41.4% of the articles (12 of 29)."

So unless I'm missing something, his defense of NYT practice applies to less than half of all articles mentioning waterboarding.

Posted by: SumHumanPatrick | July 2, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

There was a similar argument at NPR. I think the execs in these news organizations should undergo waterboarding and then decide.

Posted by: WalkingPixie | July 2, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

right, we should "waterboard" all the editors of the "Vast Liberal Media" and see how they respond. but don't call it torture. that would imply taking sides. cause we all know the "liberal" media deserves Waterboarding. lol.

and since the media is "liberal", the right would be happy to help!

way to go Washington Post, NY Times, NPR.

Posted by: Beleck31 | July 2, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

[[No one is saying the Times should have adopted the role of judge and jury and proclaimed the Bush administration officially guilty.]]

Actually, given the clarity of the language of the UN Convention Against Torture (, I'm saying that that is EXACTLY what the Times should have done.

Posted by: lexalexander1 | July 5, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

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