A Tale Of Pretending To Drown Men: The Media, Waterboarding and The Getaway Car

Colin Jones :: Friday, July 2nd, 2010 1:15 pm

What’s in a word? Or a name? Apparently not a lot when it comes to defining waterboarding as plain and simple torture.

A study released in April from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard revealed that as the government began referring to the waterboarding as an enhanced interrogation technique and not torture, as the Bush White House started doing in 2004, the American media followed suit. However, before the government rhetorical usage shifted, the media was consistant in the definition of what waterboarding is and was — torture.

Waterboarding, or the practice of inviting pain upon a human body for the purpose of extracting information, is torture. But this is more telling of where the media is right now.

The report states, “From the early 1930’s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.”

The statistics are appalling, and they bring to light a more disturbing problem. The report brings up some startling questions. Is the media purposefully complying with the government? Or is it just media laziness, with reporters lulled into coverage complacency?

The answer: both.

Looking back at Taibbi’s article regarding journalist Lara Logan’s comments regarding Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, “Lara Logan, You Suck,” the claim from Taibbi is that there is too much caution when it comes to sources and coverage. Taibbi suggests Logan and outlets like the Times and the Post become too wrapped up in the world that they are covering. Something like waterboarding, and its definition, get lost in the mire of politics.

On the problem Taibbi writes, “Meanwhile, the people who don’t have the resources to find out the truth and get it out in front of the public’s eyes, your readers/viewers, you’re supposed to be working for them — and they’re not getting your help. What the hell are we doing in Afghanistan? Is it worth all the bloodshed and the hatred? Who are the people running this thing, what is their agenda, and is that agenda the same thing we voted for?”

He’s not writing about the waterboarding issue, but Taibbi’s broader point is applicable here. He and the study both suggests that modern political journalists place their strategies for retaining sources over quality journalism. They adopt the “waterboarding as enhanced interrogation” line because it will, for lack of a better term, score them brownie points with their sources. Waterboarding, General Stanley McChrystal and so on become political pawns — mudballs to lob at liberals or conservatives. The situations that have real-life consequences are subsequently white washed.

Naturally, The Times rejected the study. But their dismissal of the paper as “misleading” falls directly into the journalist-as-political-player trap.

Yahoo’s Michael Calderone writes, “However, the Times acknowledged that political circumstances did play a role in the paper’s usage calls.” 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.”

He continues, “The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture.” He continued: “So that’s what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

What the newspaper’s representative is saying here is that the definition of waterboarding as torture, even though it had been previously defined as such, was changed as the politics changed. The definition became an opinion and not a fact. It is a long line that began with lawyer John Yoo writing the memos clarifying that waterboarding could be used and trickled down to the White House press briefings and onto the front pages of newspapers.

Journalism becomes politics, and politics becomes journalism. This is where political complacency in the journalism business starts to take shape.

Long-time reporter and writer for the Philadelphia Daliy News, Will Bunch, says in his analysis that this may be a result of an “unnatural notion of objectivity in which newspapers abandoned any core human values.” This is something that media scholar and NYU professor Jay Rosen has called the “View from Nowhere” — where the left says something, the right says something and the media is in the middle. In this equation, nobody wins or progresses. Just look at what has happened to Newsweek or CNN.

In looking over The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer’s take on the report, Bunch writes, “The irony that Serwer notes — and I completely agree — is that in claiming they were working so hard not to take “a side,” the journalists who wouldn’t call waterboarding “torture” were absolutely taking a side and handing a victory to the Bush administration, which convinced newspapers to stop unambiguously describing this crime as they had done for decades prior to 2004.”

Academia regularly scrutinizes the media, and in this instance, any accusations towards the media’s abject behavior is justified.

It’s arrogant. Its a shame And ultimately, as Bunch writes, “They were America’s leaders, they tortured, and they got away with it. And newspapers and other journalists drove the getaway car.”

Vroom. Vroom.