When is torture, “torture” in The New York Times? When it’s purportedly done by someone the US government disapproves of, says Justin Doolittle.
After years of agonizing over nomenclature, it seems the good folks at The New York Times are finally done equivocating and will now refer to torture as “torture.” With the release of photographic evidence showing heinous torture in Syria, purportedly committed by the Assad regime in its network of secret prisons, the Times’ journalists and editors called a spade a spade: In two recent news articles on the story, published on January 22 and 23, euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “harsh methods” are nowhere to be found, and “torture” is peppered throughout.
By sheer coincidence, of course, The Times has found its voice on torture only when it’s discovered to have been committed by an official enemy. As of July 2013, the last time the issue of US torture was covered in the news section, the paper was still holding on to the exquisitely Orwellian “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e., the official propaganda line of the US Government since 9/11. In a July 20, 2013, news article by reporters Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane on the politics surrounding a 6,000-page, $40 million secret Senate committee report on torture, excerpts of which a few senators wanted to release against the wishes of the CIA, “interrogation” appears 10 times (including, it goes without saying, in the title). “Torture” appears twice, both times in an equivocating, indirect context.
When referring directly to the CIA’s program in news articles, the Times will invariably employ the “enhanced interrogation” terminology; said program is never straightforwardly referred to as “torture.” When the word “torture” is used, it’s usually in a cautious, toothless way, e.g., “critics of the program say it’s torture and constitutes a betrayal of American values.”
We can state with certainty that the Times would never refer to torture in Syria, or any other enemy state for that matter, as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The notion is risible. And, given that torture is such a grave affront to our humanity, the Times is right to not sugarcoat the Syrian brutality. But minimal standards of honesty and journalistic integrity demand that torture be called by its rightful name regardless of what government or group happens to have carried it out.
Beyond the maddening discrepancy in when the term “torture” is employed, the overall clarity of language in the recent Times articles on Syrian torture represents a striking departure from how American torture has been described in the paper over the years. Consider the brutal, unusually vivid depiction provided by reporters Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick in the lead paragraph of their January 22 front-page story on the trove of photographs documenting the sadistic abuse in Syria:
Emaciated corpses lie in the sand, their ribs protruding over sunken bellies, their thighs as thin as wrists. Several show signs of strangulation. The images conjure memories of some of history’s worst atrocities.
It’s inconceivable that this kind of language would ever be used to describe US atrocities – even if they were comparable, in terms of sheer depravity, to what has evidently happened in Syria. This is nothing new, of course.
Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ highly respected public editor, wrote back in April of 2013 that “many of the complaints” she gets are in reference to the paper’s constant use of euphemisms like “targeted killing,” “detainee,” and, yes, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In each case, the Times obediently accepted the US government’s framework and terminology, rather than report honestly. This culture of deference to the government is pervasive throughout the establishment media, just as it was when Herman and Chomsky analyzed it a quarter of a century ago. That Sullivan regularly receives complaints about the Times using state-approved language is an encouraging sign, though, and it may indicate that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get away with disguising propaganda as journalism.