These are my discussion notes to The Executive Editor on the Word ‘Torture’, a letter to Times readers from Dean Baquet, August 7, 2014.
“It’s time to celebrate that the newspaper of record is no longer covering for war criminals.” That’s what Andrew Sullivan, who has kept watch on this story, wrote Thursday. The news he was celebrating: the New York Times gave up the ghost on euphemisms for torture.
Alright, we celebrated. For an hour, maybe. Now let’s ask what came to an end with this strange announcement. Terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “harsh tactics” and “brutal treatment” had been preferred usage at the Times in news stories by its own staff about the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody after 9/11. “Torture” was removed as a descriptor that the Times itself would employ. The decision to reverse that came Thursday in a brief note to readers from executive editor Dean Baquet.
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.
1. As Erik Wemple wrote, Baquet here “pledges that the newspaper will deploy the English language to describe things.” Wemple’s paraphrase points up the strangest part for me: the Times felt it had to exit from the vernacular to stay on the responsible journalism track. This I find hard to accept.
The baseline in daily journalism is supposed to be plain English, spoken and written well. Non-exclusive language is the norm. The market is the common reader and the reader’s common sense, not a specialized class of knowers vibrating in the power circle. It’s not incumbent on an already understood term like torture to prove itself neutral enough for newswriters, but on the specialist’s construction (“enhanced interrogation”) to prove itself relevant in these proceedings at all.
Even with scare quotes around it, a term like “enhanced interrogation techniques” starts with zero currency, extreme bloodlessness and dubious origins. A lot to overcome. In the years when the Times could not pick between it and torture — 2002 to 2014, approximately — it seemed that its editors and reporters were trying to re-clarify what had been made more opaque by their own avoid-the-label policy decision. Thus the appearance of do we have to spell it out for you? phrases like “brutal interrogation methods,” meant to signal: this was really, really bad. So bad you might think it amounts to…
Baquet tries to explain:
The word “torture” had a specialized 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.
So for the fruits of avoiding a label the Times becomes a force for fuzzing things up. Early in a public reckoning with acts of state torture it decides it cannot call it that. Wrong side of your Orwell there, mister editor. To report what happened you have to first commit to calling things by their right names. The Times lost sight of that somewhere in a fog it helped to create. The editor’s note doesn’t explain how it happened. (See Barry Eisler on this point.)
2. You could see the reversal coming.
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?
Marcy Wheeler in Salon, August 4, sensed the collapse:
For 10 years, journalists have willingly perpetuated this linguistic absurdity, even as more evidence came out proving the CIA used torture and not some fluffed up interrogation process, even as more and more neutral arbiters judged our torture torture.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has spent five years trying to understand and come to grips with the torture done in our name. Isn’t it time for journalists to do the same?
3. It’s easy to proclaim (and I am with those who say) that the Times showed excessive deference to government officials during the “make the picture fuzzier for our readers and let them decide” phase of reporting. But how did the editors think themselves into this mess? That is what I am trying to understand in these notes.
4. My contribution is this concept: the production of innocence. You can use it to understand what happened.
Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By “innocence” I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.
For newsrooms that still have it in their model, the production of innocence is supposed to chime with the publication of news. But what if the news is about a clearer and clearer case for calling it torture? This happened from 2002 to 2012. As the evidence became too great to ignore, the dispute in Washington over calling it torture escalated because of massive consequences up and down the chain of command. With avoid becoming party to a dispute a newsroom priority, the Times got caught on the wrong side of the evidence pile and added to the fog of euphemism. Manufacture of innocence, darker side.
Listen to a Times spokesperson explain it in 2010.
“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. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”
It’s that intention — avoid taking sides in a dispute — to which I draw your attention. It won out over 1.) “use the vernacular!” and 2.) a growing body of evidence. Until last Thursday. So what changed?
5. Innocence, I said, is a production requirement. You need to satisfy it somehow. But there are different ways to generate enough “points” to make a thing reportable. For example: if the press pack is doing it, you’re home free. That’s as innocent as you can get, even if the story is wrong. If the government admits to it, you’re innocent for telling the public it happened. If the president urges Americans to face the fact, that’s all the cover you need. When the Times could hit its innocence numbers in other ways, DON’T USE THE WORD TORTURE ON OUR AUTHORITY was dropped from the production routine.
6. From an exchange last year between Bill Keller, the executive editor under whom much of this happened, and Glenn Greenwald, who is deeply critical:
Greenwald: A failure to call torture “torture” because government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used, or lazily equating a demonstrably true assertion with a demonstrably false one, drains journalism of its passion, vibrancy, vitality and soul.
Keller: Sometimes fair play becomes false equivalence, or feels like euphemism. But it’s simplistic to say, for example, unless you use the word “torture” you are failing a test of courage, or covering up evil. Of course, I regard waterboarding as torture. But if a journalist gives me a vivid description of waterboarding, notes the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced it, and then lays out the legal debate over whether it violates a specific statute or international accord, I don’t care whether he uses the word or not. I’m happy — and fully equipped — to draw my own conclusion.
To which I say: accountability can’t start until things are called by their right names. The Times became a force — not the force, but one among many in the system — for confusion and delay in the public reckoning with torture. Until, as Dean Baquet wrote: “The Justice Department, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has made clear that it will not prosecute in connection with the interrogation program.”
7. The Times actually used the word “torture” a lot during the period when the ban was in effect. This is important. The ban applied to a relatively narrow class of cases. Some of the situations in which it did not apply:
* Quoting someone who alleged: this was torture. (“We’re not saying it, he is.”)
* Citing reports documenting torture. (“We’re not calling it that. But this report does.”)
* Reporting on the debate: was it torture? did it work? (“We’re not saying. We’re just telling you there’s a dispute”)
* Publishing in op-eds and reviews other voices who do call it torture. (“We’re not saying it, this writer is.”)
* Editorials in the Times. (“That’s opinion. No problem.”)
A good example is a 2005 review essay by Andrew Sullivan: (My bold.)
Whether we decide to call this kind of treatment ”abuse” or some other euphemism, there is no doubt what it was in the minds of the American soldiers who perpetrated it. They believed in torture. And many believed it was sanctioned from above. ….At Guantánamo Bay, newly released documents show that some of the torturers felt they were acting on the basis of memos sent from Washington.
Was the torture effective?
If the Times was concerned about getting ahead of the legal system, how could it allow these straightforward uses of the term? Times readers somehow won’t be unfairly influenced when Andrew Sullivan does it in the book review, but they will be if the news staff tries the same thing? Doesn’t make a lot of sense. Unless you understand the production of innocence. The Times wasn’t trying to keep “Wake up, people! The U.S. did commit torture …” from readers, the way it might keep a rape victim’s name out of the news. It was trying to avoid making the statement on its own authority. As long as others took the responsibility — outside writers, human rights groups, quoted sources in a dispute, editorial boards — the innocence requirement was met and production went forward.
8. This has been going on for years. And not only at the Times but across the sector. In 2006 Eric Umansky (now at ProPublica) dug into the early patterns in coverage of torture for Columbia Journalism Review. His analysis, Failures of Imagination, is detailed and persuasive. For my notes, this part is key:
What is true and what is significant are two different matters. Everybody agrees that journalists are supposed to ascertain the truth. As for deciding what is significant, reporters and editors make that judgment, too, all the time — what story leads on the front page, or gets played inside, what story gets followed up. And when it comes to very sensitive material, like torture, many journalists would prefer to rely on others to be the first to decide that something is significant. To do otherwise would mean sticking your neck out.
Which is an innocence calculation, it you take my drift. Umansky is direct:
Any article, no matter how straightforward or truthful, that treats abuse as a potential scandal — even by simply putting allegations on the front page — is itself making a political statement that “we think this is important,” and, implicitly, wrong. To make such a statement takes chutzpah.
“Avoid taking sides in a political dispute…” This does not take chutzpah.
9. Bill Keller, who was top editor of the New York Times when most of this was transacted, whose decision-making was undone by Dean Baquet’s note to readers… Keller has a new job. Founding editor of The Marshall Project, a fascinating niche site with an important mission. (Their bold.) “There is a pressing national need for excellent journalism about the U.S. court and prison systems. “ I agree. This part caught my eye: “With growing awareness of the system’s failings, now is an opportune moment to launch a national conversation about criminal justice. There are numerous indications of the country’s appetite for reform.”
Obviously Bill Keller in 2014 is comfortable with that: “Launch a national conversation about…” He wants to equip with information “the country’s appetite for reform.” He feels he knows how to do the journalism part of that equation— for criminal justice. I can’t wait to see what he produces.
“With growing awareness of the system’s failings, launch a national conversation about…” That never happened for the New York Times under Bill Keller once it became clear that the United States tortured people after 9/11. Under Howell Raines, Bill Keller, Jill Abramson and Dean Baquet, the Times helped delay our national reckoning with torture. The facts were there. Required levels of innocence were not.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
Barry Eisler (former CIA, now a writer) notes something important in his post. The standard legal definition of torture “is pretty much what the Times wound up using anyway.” In other words, a judgment the Times says it’s able to make now is the same judgment that could have been made then to say that U.S. conduct met the legal standard for torture.
The Times archives has topic pages for coverage of torture and CIA interrogations. Most of the relevant coverage can be found there.
Listen to this quote:
What I believe in is deep reporting, and then if a reporter really digs, there often is what I call weight of evidence in stories that are about contentious subjects.
That’s Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, speaking last week. “Weight of evidence” is exactly the judgment The Times dodged when the subject was whether to call it torture.
“To survey powerful actors with clear conflicts of interest and then defer to their characterizations betrays a newspaper’s charge: to determine the truth and state it plainly for the public.” — Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic.
Torture vs. torture euphemisms: see this infographic for percentages and charts.
NPR’s David Folkenflik was a media beat reporter for the Baltimore Sun in 2004. This is from one of his columns (May 26, 2004). It shows what was riding on the issue:
Rumsfeld also used misdirection — a “look at this hand, not that hand” approach — to brush off questions about whether U.S. troops had tortured prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld told reporters: “My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture… I don’t know if… it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there’s been a conviction for torture. And therefore I’m not going to address the torture word.”
Yet it’s not hard to see torture in some of the pictures obtained and published so far by the media of abuses at Abu Ghraib. And the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and a subsequent international protocol of 1984, both of which have been signed and ratified by the U.S. government as law, do address the torture word. The 1984 document states:
“The term `torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him … or intimidating or coercing him.”
The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 makes such conduct by a member of the U.S. armed forces a “war crime” punishable by fine, imprisonment or, in cases resulting in death to the victim, the death penalty.
Photo of Bill Keller used under a Creative Commons license. Photo of Dean Baquet courtesy of New York Times.