Ello everybody. I'm back in Australia and the Weekly Exchange is ready for business. We were derailed a couple of months ago as big changes on my radio show demanded more of my time and attention, but let's try again shall we?
This newsletter has already gone through several iterations in it's short life. But here's one more; from now on I shall pick one theme, one idea, or one story (etc.); and serve up related articles on this one subject. Up until now I have merely compiled a list of articles that intrigued me, with a bias towards stories and ideas that have not been covered by the mainstream press. The bias will continue to lean towards the underserved, but instead of a corral of unrelated articles, there will be several articles representing just the one subject. Let's see if this sticks.
This week's theme is the media's coverage of torture. It is inspired by an all too late shift in the way the American media portrays torture, and how this represents lost opportunities. More specifically, and only following a US Senate investigation into Torture (which concluded that it took place) and President Obama admitting that the US “tortured some folks”, The New York Times finally decided to grow a pair and begin calling a spade a spade. In an article, newly installed Executive Editor of the Times, Dean Baquet stated:
“…from now on, The Times will use the word “torture” to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”
After more than a decade of Orwellian euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation”, the “paper of record” has decided to quit sacrificing truth and values in a sycophantic bid to remain in the government's good graces. But fault has now been admitted, and the few stories and allusions that were published prove the media knew what was happening. They are culpable for the faux “fair and balanced” debate that was constructed, and the lack of action that allowed the practice to continue, the American public to forget, and no one be held accountable. Bacquet justifies the Times' behaviour by splitting hairs. Claiming that torture has both legal as well as “plain-English” definitions, and the Times was right in avoiding this grey area:
“When the first revelations emerged a decade ago, the situation was murky. The details about what the Central Intelligence Agency did in its interrogation rooms were vague. The word “torture” had a specialised legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.”
As Eric Wimple noted, thank God the Times has finally decided to begin deploying “the English language to describe things”. But of course, the Times wasn't alone in this behaviour. In fact, most of the American media went along with the pleasant fiction (including Wemple's Washington Post). In light of recent developments, the Columbia Journalism Review has republished an article taking a look at how American journalists have covered torture since 9/11:
“Without Gall, The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, and many other reporters, we might well never have learned of the abuse and torture that occurred in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. But just as sweeping attacks against “the media” are too reductive, so too are plaudits. And when the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: In the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored — a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.”
However, and notably excluding The Times, the tide has been turning for a while. Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair columnist and at the time an advocate of the Iraq War, famously supported “enhanced interrogation” and water boarding in particular. But after Hitchens accepted a challenged to be waterboarded himself, his tune changed. “Believe Me, It's Torture” was the headline of his subsequent account:
“…I have since woken up trying to push the bedcovers off my face, and if I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured. I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”
But surely it shouldn't require a decade, or a journalist actually getting tortured before media outlets come to the conclusion that torture is torture? As the Columbia Journalism Review article showed, the American media had plenty of opportunity to highlight torture and other abuses. If only they stopped deferring to power and instead held it to account. This brings us to a brilliant article from last year by Ron Unz, where he highlights several other areas in which the American media have pursued other agendas, and society has paid the price:
“The realisation that the world is often quite different from what is presented in our leading newspapers and magazines is not an easy conclusion for most educated Americans to accept, or at least that was true in my own case. For decades, I have closely read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and one or two other major newspapers every morning, supplemented by a wide variety of weekly or monthly opinion magazines. Their biases in certain areas had always been apparent to me. But I felt confident that by comparing and contrasting the claims of these different publications and applying some common sense, I could obtain a reasonably accurate version of reality. I was mistaken.”
The American media missed a great opportunity to fulfill their role as watchdogs of democracy when it came to torture. And it has cost America greatly in terms of moral standing and even the safety and viability of their rights, democracy and institutions. Perhaps what's worse, and as Professor Jay Rosen has highlighted, even a powerful institution such as the Times only reversed course after the government it's meant to hold to account. The Times only moved once the government changed the arithmetic on the “production of innocence”:
“Baquet's note doesn’t mention Obama’s concession on August 1. “We crossed a line and that needs to be understood and accepted. We have to as a country take responsibility for that.” The president is being more direct than ever: yes, we tortured people. The Senate Intelligence committee report, with lots of details about torture, will be coming out soon. Fights about its release could be making news for weeks. Linguistically, the Times was headed for a crash if everyone in the political system could talk of torture (and be quoted on it) but Times reporters couldn’t say that themselves. The game was up. When the reporters lobbied for release, what choice did Baquet have?”
That's all for this week's Exchange. If you have anything to say about media coverage of torture you can comment on the website or drop me a line at [email protected]