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"Torture" study reveals appalling cowardice of America's newspapers

On the one hand, waterboarding is torture.

On the other hand....

I'm sorry -- there is no other hand. Waterboarding is torture, period. It's been that way for decades -- it was torture when we went after Japanese war criminals who used the ancient and inhumane interrogation tactic, it was torture when Pol Pot and some of the worst dictators known to mankind used it against their own people, and it was torture to the U.S. military which once punished soldiers who adopted the grim practice.

And waterboarding was described as "torture," almost without fail, in America's newspapers.

Until 2004, after the arrival of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their criminal notions of "enhanced interrogations." For four years -- in what would have to be the bizarro-world version of "speaking truth to power," waterboarding was almost never torture on U.S. newsprint. Then waterboarding-as-torture nearly made a mild comeback in journo-world, until perpetrators like Cheney and Inquirer op-ed columnist John Yoo began the big pushback, when American newspapers bravely turned their tails and fled.

The sordid history is spelled out in a significant new report by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (you can read it as a PDF file here). The report notes:

From the early 1930's until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

The report also notes that waterboarding had constantly been referred to as torture by newspapers when other nations did it, but when the United States did it in the 2000s, it was, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, not illegal. The study proves scientifically something we've been talking about here at Attytood since Day One, about the tragic consequences of the elevation of an unnatural notion of objectivity in which newspapers abandoned any core human values -- even when it comes to something as clear cut as torture -- to give equal moral weight to both sides of an not-so-debatable issue (not to mention treating scientific issues like climate changes in the same zombie-like manner).

Never before in my adult life have I been so ashamed of my profession, journalism.

There's already some good analysis of the report out there from the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Adam Serwer, who writes:

As soon as Republicans started quibbling over the definition of torture, traditional media outlets felt compelled to treat the issue as a "controversial" matter, and in order to appear as though they weren't taking a side, media outlets treated the issue as unsettled, rather than confronting a blatant falsehood. To borrow John Holbo's formulation, the media, confronted with the group think of two sides of an argument, decided to eliminate the "think" part of the equation so they could be "fair" to both groups.

The irony that Serwer notes -- and I completely agree -- is that in claiming they were working so hard not to take "a side," the journalists who wouldn't call waterboarding "torture" were absolutely taking a side and handing a victory to the Bush administration, which convinced newspapers to stop unambiguously describing this crime as they had done for decades prior to 2004. It's a tactic that has continued to this day. It's the reason why Cheney-- who'd been nearly invisible when he was in power -- and Yoo were suddenly all over the place beginning on Jan. 21, 2009, because they were desperately trying to keep framing this debate as the newspapers had, that their torture tactics were a public, political disagreement, and not a war crime.

And tragically, they succeeded. They were America's leaders, they tortured, and they got away with it. And newspapers and other journalists drove the getaway car.

I do think this report frames a much broader problem in America, which is that we've lost our ability to distinguish right from wrong on its most basic level, because of our need to filter everything through some kind of bogus political prism. Look past torture, and look at the Elena Kagan hearings down in Washington, and the shameful way that Republican senators have desecrated the memory of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. What made Marshall a great American is that he started with an inalienable truth -- that segregation and other unequal treatment of blacks or other minorities are a sin against mankind -- and that it was our duty not just as Americans but as human beings to end that injustice by any peaceful means necessary. If Marshall had behaved the way that the 2010 Republican Party would want him to act, forget the notion of an African-American president -- there would be water fountains in some American states where Barack Obama could not get a drink.

Increasingly, we're losing our perspective, maybe our minds. We have candidates for the U.S. Congress comparing the taxes that we pay to finance the U.S. military or to pay for public schools to slavery, or to the Nazi-led Holocaust. As Americans, we should all seek higher ground over what we talk about when we talk about slavery, and what we talk about when we talk about torture.

And yet even some of my own colleagues failed -- journalists who started out with a mission to tell the truth and who got very, very lost in a thicket of politics and perhaps self-importance along the way.

And that is beyond shameful.