A good example can be found in reporting about the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, on which the Times played an essential role. The Khmer Rouge’s waterboarding was “torture.” But Bush Administration waterboarding is just an “enhanced interrogation technique.” What’s behind the distinction? It’s a blend of fear and hypocrisy.
A week ago, Dana Priest of the Washington Post (which has a similar problem with using the T-word) came close to candor in an online chat session in which she acknowledged that the Post won’t use the word “torture” to describe the Bush program because the Bush Administration itself doesn’t. What she really means, of course, is that the Post knows that the Bush Administration would have had a fit had they used the word.But this week, the Times exposed its hypocrisy in a most revealing way. It happened on the obituary pages, in a piece that ran about former Air Force Colonel Harold E. Fischer.
But note the difference in Timesspeak: Mao’s People’s Liberation Army uses them, they’re “torture.” Bush uses them, they’re not. Andrew Sullivan offers a searing analysis in a letter to the editors of the Times that will probably never be published.
The language used by the Times and similar publication shapes the debate. Because major media outlets will not use the word “torture” to refer to the Bush program, large parts of the public now understand this as a “legitimate policy discussion.” The Times policy enables torture. It’s about as simple as that. George Orwell diagnosed the problem and the cure to it in a famous London Letter from 1945:
The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified. All these mental vices spring ultimately from the nationalistic habit of mind, which is itself, I suppose, the product of fear and of the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization…. I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.
The Times needs to make that moral effort. Its failure to do so is alarming.
Kudos to Charles Kaiser at the Columbia Journalism Review, whose chronicling of the Times’s dissembling on torture is a lesson to all of us in solid critique of journalistic malpractice.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
I don't trust the editor's of the New York Times. And I don't know the journalists from the propagandists. That's why I rely on genuine journalists and investigators at such sources as Democracy Now!, Harper's, and Glenn Greenwald. Today, Scott Horton, in his blog No Comment, deciphers the lexicon that enables torture: