When Is Torture Not Torture?

Torture chart.jpg

When journalistic conventions of evenhandedness get involved. Glenn Greenwald points to a study from the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard showing that news outlets referred to waterboarding as "torture" in stories in which other countries used the technique but not in stories when the U.S. government used it (jpeg of chart borrowed from Kevin Drum):

In the NY Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the U.S. using waterboarding against an individual called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. Yet when the U.S. was the perpetrator, only 7.69% (16 of 208) articles said or implied that waterboarding was torture. Just 0.8% of the articles (1 of 133) dealing with the War on Terror where the U.S. was the perpetrator said or implied that waterboarding was torture.

The LA Times follows a similar pattern of avoiding the label of torture when the U.S. is responsible for using waterboarding. In articles that considered other countries using waterboarding, 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) called waterboarding torture or implied the practice was torture. When the U.S. was the violator, only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) used this classification.

Greenwald says this proves the media's "servitude to government," but I think it's actually the conventions of journalism that are at fault here. As soon as Republicans started quibbling over the definition of torture, traditional media outlets felt compelled to treat the issue as a "controversial" matter, and in order to appear as though they weren't taking a side, media outlets treated the issue as unsettled, rather than confronting a blatant falsehood. To borrow John Holbo's formulation, the media, confronted with the group think of two sides of an argument, decided to eliminate the "think" part of the equation so they could be "fair" to both groups.

Of course, this attempt at "neutrality" was, in and of itself, taking a side, if inadvertently. It was taking the side of people who supported torture, opposed investigating it as a crime, and wanted to protect those who implemented the policy from any kind of legal accountability. Most important, it reinforced the moral relativism of torture apologists, who argued that even if from an objective point of view, waterboarding was torture, it wasn't torture when being done by the United States to a villain like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, but rather only when done by say, a dictator like Kim Jong Il to a captured American soldier.

Like they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case, journalistic conventions helped pave the way for an unaccountable national-security apparatus.That doesn't mean that some journalists don't have skewed perceptions of whom they actually work for, but I think that's the lesser issue here.

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