Andrew Sullivan points us to a paper demonstrating that until the American government started doing it, waterboarding was almost always referred to as "torture" in elite American newspapers, but in the time since, it is almost never referred to as "torture" -- for example, from the 1930s to 2003, The New York Times referred to it as "torture" on 44 of 54 occasions, or 81.5 percent; but between 2004 and 2008, they referred to it as "torture" in only 2 of 143 articles, or 1.4 percent. This shouldn't be all that surprising if you've been paying attention, but it does highlight something important about our media. It isn't just cowardice -- it's not as though they said, "Now that the administration has decreed waterboarding to no longer be torture, we must describe it thusly." Instead, it shows how it's possible for one of the two parties -- especially if they're unified, and Republicans were on this point -- to almost instantaneously change the terms of debate. Once Republicans decided that waterboarding wasn't torture, while Democrats insisted it was, the question became a subject of disagreement, and thus something that "objective" reporters could no longer take for granted. To do so would have been "taking sides" in that disagreement.

This is part of the "he said/she said" pathology -- one that goes beyond the story a journalist is reporting today, to the way they talk about issues over long periods. You'd think that at some point, a major news organization would have the courage to say, "The fact that you're claiming this isn't torture is just absurd. We'll report your argument, but we're not going to stop calling it what it is." But they didn't.

It isn't completely impossible to break out of that pattern -- there was a point in 2006 when NBC decided that it was accurate to call what was going on in Iraq a "civil war," at which point the conservative media, veins popping in rage, accused them of taking sides and hoping for America's defeat (the Bush administration objected as well). But that was almost the exception that proves the rule. At a minimum, it's possible for partisans to convince the media that to be objective, they have to include the partisans' characterization in every story (e.g. "The estate tax, or what opponents call the 'death tax'"). But a truly independent media ought to be willing to exercise some independent judgment.

UPDATE: Adam wrote about this as well, and makes a point that's worth emphasizing: in their attempt to not "take a side" by moving the question of whether waterboarding is torture from the realm of the self-evident to the realm of the contested, the media most definitely took a side. So from the Bush administration's standpoint, it was mission accomplished.

-- Paul Waldman

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