“Wrong side of your Orwell, mister editor.” The New York Times falls down on the word torture.

These are my discussion notes to The Executive Editor on the Word ‘Torture’, a letter to Times readers from Dean Baquet, August 7, 2014.

10 Aug 2014 12:52 am 22 Comments

“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.” Dean Baquet8 1-30-07Wemple’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. 6985189859_d03949b7b9_mFounding 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.

Seems relevant:

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.


Thanks for that, Jay. The production of innocence is the best rubric I’ve come across for understanding the Times on torture.

What’s ironic is that logically, the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute torture should have cued the Times that there *wasn’t* torture. The USG has a treaty obligation to investigate and prosecute credible allegations of torture . No investigation and prosecution (remember, the Senate reporter itself allegedly avoids the word) would seem to indicate… no torture.

So it’s hard to avoid concluding that what’s ultimately driving the Times’ reversal is the recognition that whatever they call torture is no longer terribly important. The Senate is done investigating “brutal treatment,” the Justice Department isn’t going to prosecute anyone, Obama has called it torture but in a way that will involve no consequences for anyone. Essentially, America’s descent into torture is passing into history, a distance safe enough for the Times to feel they can finally engage it.

All of which is just another way of agreeing with you that at root this is about the production of innocence. What’s doubly fascinating to the novelist in me is that I don’t think the Times is consciously aware of any of this. They must sense it on some level, but they can’t articulate it, probably in part because they don’t want to.

Which is of course a shame. The first step toward solving a problem is to acknowledge it exists.

Anyway, thanks again for applying the POI in this instance. Reading Baquet’s bizarre explanations left me feeling the mental equivalent of something caught in my teeth. This post helped dislodge it.

I don’t think the Times is consciously aware of any of this. They must sense it on some level, but they can’t articulate it, probably in part because they don’t want to.

I agree with that for the most part. In their private moments they must say, “how did we get into this?” but insofar as it can ‘think’ the institution is unaware of how it happened.

Tim Schmoyer says:

I think the passage of time, lowering of emotions, and reduction of risk in legal proceedings absolutely changes the language being used (never innocent) to describe things. No doubt 2014 is different from 2004 (when torture and beheadings were driving news cycles) and it is an interesting question why we didn’t arrive at the 2014 point earlier or what we’ll say about this in 2024.

Beheading in the Name of Islam http://www.meforum.org/713/beheading-in-the-name-of-islam#.U-6PIJppH-Y.twitter

Berg video http://archive.pressthink.org/2004/05/16/berg_video.html

i’m probably putting to fine a point on what you’ve already expertly summarized, but i wanted to add a little extra emphasis to point 6. In reading and rereading Baquet’s piece, i was struck in particular by the second paragraph, which functions as a sort of recap-slash-justification of the whole mess. Here’s my summary of that summary:

• The situation was murky
• The details were vague
• The word had uncertain meanings
• There was so much debate and confusion
• The label was in dispute

What strikes me is how passive all this is. It’s as if all this murkiness/vagueness/uncertainty/debate/(see thesaurus for more) just suddenly materialized out of nowhere. By some unknowable causeless happenstance, everyone became intensely confused about what torture was and started having a debate.

What’s missing is that the very reason torture became uncertain was that the government wanted it that way. The murk was by design – in fact, the murk was itself the design: it suited the interests of those in power to take the word ‘torture’, with all its vivid sharpness and moral clarity, out of the national dialogue. The strategists then bullied the media into accepting the new language, threatening to call them the dreaded epithet of ‘partisan’ (ie. non-innocent) if they used the non-approved terms. And because modern media cannot bear to be truly adversarial, they fell meekly in line.

As you’ve said a bazillion times, this passivity is not a view from nowhere. By making murk, the media was taking the side of the entity that designed and deployed the murk: the establishment in power. (Yes yes, and it’s not a new thing, and this surprises you?, etc.)

It’s also telling that Baquet doesn’t even attempt to grapple with their culpability in the least – much as the torture debate had no cause, there has also been no effect. It took us a decade and change to call torture what it is, and who can truly say why? And so the very idea of apology is off the table, as it grates too jarringly with their self-image. The very idea – the impartial paper floating serenely above the fray reporting straightforward objective facts, breaking down and admitting that their proud objectivity is in fact one of the primary conduits by which power delivers its agenda du jour – does not compute.

Yep. This is very good on that murkiness.

I’m all for calling torture what it is, but honestly the obsession of liberal bloggers with this subject has often struck me as having a precious, angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin quality.

For instance, above you cite three examples of the NYT supposedly avoiding the use of “torture,” but the word appears in every story — including the headline of the first example! (“Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture”) The others, in addition to using the word itself, refer to “a brutal treatment regimen used decades ago by Chinese Communists” and “the infliction of pain and panic.” In short, even though the NYT did not use the exact phrase, “The Bush administration tortured prisoners,” readers got a clear picture of what was being done.

If they’re now going to take that last step, good. But to call such hair-splitting Orwellian cheapens Orwell.

1. As i see it, the point is not that the word ‘torture’ itself was censored – it’s that committing authoritatively to it was off-limits:

No: The Bush Administration’s Torture Program

Yes: The Bush Administration’s Enhanced Interrogation Program, which some partisan coalitions and outside interest groups have called ‘torture’ (scare quotes = bonus points!)

2. Renaming torture ‘enhanced interrogation’ is totally deserving of the Orwellian designation in my view. As the man himself said, “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm)

I completely agree that “enhanced interrogation” is justifiably considered an Orwellian term. But where is it in the articles Jay links to?

Answer: It appears once, in quotes (a format which both you and Jay as not really counting!), describing the Bushites’ own description of the practice. The same article refers to “the so-called enhanced measures, which included slamming prisoners into walls, shackling them in stress positions and keeping them awake for as long as 180 hours.”

Oh, and this is the same story where the HEADLINE uses the word “torture.” (“Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture” seems rather authoritatively committed, but I suppose your mileage may vary.)

Given this, I’d say Jay’s claim that “enhanced interrogation techniques” was “preferred usage at the Times” is more misleading than anything the NYT wrote about the Bush torture program… at least based on the evidence Jay has presented.

Take a look at this usage, which is typical. The phrase, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ is tied to its government coinage, but still used to describe torture. The Times also puts in ‘brutal interrogation’ to show that while it’s using the government’s term it’s not leaving it at that.


Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ like waterboarding.

This is why I phrased it as follows:

“Terms like ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ ‘harsh tactics’ and ‘brutal treatment’ had been preferred usage at the Times in news stories by its own staff.”

I think the headline “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture” supports Jay’s argument. The headline is acceptable because it doesn’t say, “The USG tortured.” Instead it says, “There is a debate about torture.” As Jay points out, acknowledging the existence of a debate is acceptable. Being accused of taking a side in that debate isn’t.

Very interesting read. The Production of Innocence concept indeed seems to explain a lot of what was going on. But in a way it also provides cover for Mr. Greenwald’s accusation that “government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used.”

The government didn’t need to demand anything, it was the NYT’s own free choice to not use the t word except when in quotation. In this respect Geller was innocent.

MarrisonL says:

For the NYTimes, it’s hard to honestly cover the establishment when you are the establishment. It acts from guilt, not innocence. As part of the government team, it requires little prompting.

Routine war crimes by the highest persons and institutions in the beloved central government can not be truthfully reported; public trust in government must be protected at all costs. Plus the resulting, required criminal justice prosecutions & punishments of the high government persons involved would be extremely messy, causing the citizenry to deeply doubt the fundamentals of their government.

No way the NYTimes will rock {capsize} their joint establishment boat in that direction.

Dominant media journalists claim to search for the truth, yet they print the obvious lies of politicians and their underlings every day.

“You can fool enough of the people enough of the time”
– Phineas Taylor Barnum

I want to emphasize a point you’ve made repeatedly over the years and again with this piece, which is that attempting the appearance of not taking sides is taking sides. To refrain from directly challenging the government’s position is as political as challenging it.

Another arena in which the Times and most of their institutional press colleagues have fallen down is in exploring the “what if.” What if it is torture? What are the consequences?

Barry Eisler references above the UN Convention Against Torture and the US obligation to investigate allegations of torture and to prosecute offenders if the evidence supports that. I haven’t followed the Times coverage obsessively, but I don’t recall any non-op ed mention of the treaty as it might be applied to the Bush administration officials who devised the torture policy or the US personnel who carried it out, and certainly not as it might apply to the Obama administration’s failure to act.

That’s an important subject, not least because President Obama, in his two major references to torture, rationalizes it in language that the treat explicitly cites as offering no justification: that the torturers thought it was legal — flirting hard with the Nuremberg defense — and that it happened during a time of national peril.

In short: okay, it’s torture. Now what? International law requires certain responses to torture, and doing nothing isn’t one of them. Where’s the story on that?

Thanks, Weldon. If you read the Eric Umansky account you come to the conclusion that for a few years, 2002 to 2004 maybe, there was enough doubt and murk that the press could be forgiven for not saying, “The U.S. tortured people in its custody.”

After that we enter a period of growing certainty from, say, 2004 to 2009: “Yes, the U.S. tortured people in its custody.” At any point in this period the Times could have come to that conclusion simply by examining what it knows, looking at the legal definition (as well as the common sense meaning of the term) and making a considered judgment.

Once that happens the story shifts to: will anyone be held accountable for the torture that undeniably happened to people in U.S. custody? In that narrative, the Times can still report that the government considers it “enhanced interrogation,” that the Justice Department is declining to prosecute, but it does not have to support a cruel masquerade.

We still don’t know why the Times never came to this moment.

After 2009, other than the reluctance to prosecute and the ass-covering behavior of people in Washington, there is simply no good excuse for declining to call torture “torture.”

You can argue with my exact dates, but I think dividing the history into these three phases is useful for assigning responsibility.

Lee Kaye says:

It is beyond the point of absurdity and Roman like debate and political theater. This is how Pontius Pilate must have ran his business and new staff. A production of intellectual mud wrestling dressed in massive denial with a bow tie. Its obvious one thing us clear: 9/11 produced some major impotence and devastating denial for the liberal gonzo journalist armed with a limp pen and penis against the Bush administration and with a proud parent my Obama cant do no wrong we iz free at last pronunciation of purple journalism for the democrats reign of confetti and cover up. The Times is quite simply the “honky bible” so to speak. Filled with the guilt and one upmanship of high school speech and debate champions now all grown up and desperately in need of that holiday in Cambodia. Journalists play blog and twitter ping pong and chess while completely numb to the horrors of the plebeians and poor, the victims of a brutal government that they the protect or fail to challenge. The Times keeps its readers praying to their high brow with revision and white wash of not only terms of torture but steadfast alligence uber alles to the horror of a government gone wild with injustice ,brutality and Roman like rhetoric . Does it matter where and when torture is vomited or dressed for digestion in ink? The failure of journalism to create any change for good or for action against untouchable elite ruling parties is another unbearable act of pain that can be described in multiple screams of pain and felt like a belt to the mouth, amongst other things.

gregorylent says:

for me now … if it is in the nyt, it is american government propaganda … i cannot see my opinion changing.

What is the importance of defining torture if the definition is divorced from its consequences? What makes murder different from killing in the absence of consequences? We can all decry torture but unless and until those responsible are held to account this borders on an absurd academic exercise. Sure the NYT helped make torture more palatable for the US public but given the big picture of how the US government can abuse the laws that are supposed define its legitimacy with impunity this is pretty small potatoes. The American public needs a veil to cover its hideous, self serving apathy or it couldn’t stand to look at itself.

MarrisonL says:

mutex — you’re correct on the unimportance of the journalistic torture-debate if it lacks real world consequences. The total lack of real consequences should be a key element here.

However, this is a journalism blog focused mostly upon inside-baseball. IMO the NYTImes deliberate minimization of this torture issue stems directly from the core political beliefs/agenda of its management. A bit of torture & murder on disliked foreign persons/groups is tolerable collateral damage in pursuit of Times-supported national goals… and is in no way worth up ending the Federal government because of its “minor” excursions from fundamental U.S. and international law. Since most American journalists & media share this NYTimes view– consequences are no big deal.

” At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas of which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it… ”
[- Introduction to ‘Animal Farm’]

“However, this is a journalism blog focused mostly upon inside-baseball.”

No, it’s not. I don’t write about journalism from the point of journalistic insiders.

halfkidding says:

To expect more of the NY Times at this point is foolish.

Currently the coverage of Ukraine has been a cartoon, what little of it there has been. Rating as the most crude sort of propaganda, Izvestia and Pravda all wrapped into one. On the most important matters the Times delivers the official party line and with each passing year it gets worse.

Journalism cannot be practiced for profit. There is no market for it.

Insightful analysis. Although I agree that straying away from the vernacular can be perverse in and of itself, there are aggravating circumstances at play with the choice between ‘torture’ and a euphemism.

Note 1: What I’m about to say does not extend to every linguistic decision driven by the production of innocence, but it should in principle apply to any decision to use an expression that can properly be called a euphemism.

Note 2: What I’m about to say is informed by standard contemporary linguistic theory, going back to philosopher Paul Grice’s idea of conversational implicature.

Behind NYT’s strategy to maximize innocence was the following assumption: if a word is not said, there is commitment to neither its appropriateness nor its inappropriateness in context. In other words, NYT is asking that we grant them authority over the things it says, but that we revoke this authority when it comes to the things it doesn’t say.

This could appear to be a reasonable request, but it isn’t. A situation or individual can be described in a number of truthful ways. For example, anything “the President” announces is automatically announced by “a White House official”, so that (1) cannot be true unless (2) is–but not so the other way around. By the same token, (1), if true, is strictly more informative than (2).

(1) The president announced X.
(2) A white house official announced X.

When faced with the information that (2), the reader entertains alternatives that are more informative like (1), tries to make sense of why the news provider chose not to employ those, and draws one of the following conclusions:

(3) The author does not know whether it’s the President who announced X.
(4) The author does not want to e.g. divulge whether it’s the President who announced X.
(5) The author knows that it’s not the President who announced X.

This type of inference about the status of unsaid alternatives is called ‘implicature’, and falls under the broad category of pragmatic content. Inference (3) and (4) display the kind of revocation of authority sought after by NYT, while (5) requires the attribution of authority over things that were not actually said. Many factors go into the reader’s choice of inference, but what is clear in the example is that (5) is very much the default in this case.

How does this relate to the use of euphemisms over a vernacular term? Setting aside the inherent vagueness of some euphemisms, we start from the assumption that something like ‘torture’ has a different meaning from ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ (–if they were true synonyms, there would be no motive to prefer one over the other). From there, all we need to assume is that torture and enhanced interrogation techniques are nevertheless related. Specifically, torture is an (extreme) type of enhanced interrogation technique.

The point is, there is no way to avoid reasoning ourselves through the question “Why is NYT not calling it torture?” A very natural conclusion, in light of what I’ve said, is that NYT is not calling it torture because it believes it’s not torture. Thus, indirectly but in a completely predictable way, NYT is using its authority to say that something isn’t torture, failing at its original goal of maximizing its innocence in the matter.

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