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Bordering on Accuracy about Torture

The New York Times has been among the prime examples of media organizations that refuse to call torture what it is: torture. The euphamism that the Times and other traditional (and cowardly) media outlets have been using has typically been “enhanced interrogation techniques” — despite the fact that at least one of those techniques, waterboarding, has been the basis of our own government’s war-crimes cases against others in the past.

Today the Times moves the ball slightly toward the correct goal line. In an online posting about the naming of several key Justice Department officials, reporter Eric Lichtblau writes of “practices bordering on torture.”

This borders on accuracy, and is an improvement. One of these days, the newspaper may actually use the correct word without equivocation.

0 Comments on “Bordering on Accuracy about Torture”

  1. #1 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jan 5th, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    And let’s not forget all of the gnawing for The Paper of Record to use the word “terrorist” as well.

    Or maybe, let’s. This nitpicking is tiresome.

    But, as long as we’re keeping score, the number-one Google search result for torture news is the Times Topics page on Torture– featuring articles, op-eds, and editorials on the subject over the years.

    Yes, I realize that you’re after the news articles here. But the problem is more linguistic than journalistic. Let’s take this one from November 9, 2005 article by Douglas Jehl:

    “The report, by John L. Helgerson, the C.I.A.’s inspector general, did not conclude that the torture constituted torture, which is also prohibited under American law, the officials said.”

    Actually, he wrote that the “techniques constitued torture” so the article referred to the “techniques” in question by the report. I realize you’re the journalism professor here and I’m not, but it seems like a good reporter can only use the active voice when they’ve witnessed it directly (contra: “A retired funeral home worker was found stabbed to death in his studio apartment on Staten Island yesterday afternoon, the police said.”)


  2. #2 links for 2009-01-06 – Innovation in College Media
    on Jan 6th, 2009 at 11:35 am

    […] Bordering on Accuracy about Torture Dan Gillmor points out one of the things that will need to change if journalism wants to proceed into the 21st century – calling torture what it is: torture. (tags: newyorktimes torture) […]

  3. #3 Bob Collins
    on Jan 6th, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    //One of these days, the newspaper may actually use the correct word without equivocation.

    Today’s your lucky day.

  4. #4 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jan 6th, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    And people take you so literally here. These are the references from the article that Collins points to:

    “The maladies, said Mr. Iqbal, 31, a professional reader of the Koran, are the result of a gantlet of torture…”
    article: “The Pentagon and C.I.A. deny using torture…”
    CIA Spokesman: “…The United States does not conduct or condone torture.”
    Iqbal: “Then they make me naked, they torture me.”
    article “the Egyptians tortured him with electric shocks, [Iqpal] said.”

    In each of these instances, “torture” is attributed to a speaker. I don’t think there was ever a doubt that the NYT is able to talk about it in the abstract, or from the mouth of another speaker.

    To my knowledge, the New York Times Style Guide prohibits a reporter from writing a sentence like “Mr. Iqbal was tortured by Egyptian intelligence agents” unless the reporter witnessed it directly. It’s possible that the guidelines for the magazine are somewhat looser, and allows imagined narrative.

    Dan would make to like the point that the newspaper is fecklessly neutral, but I don’t think it holds. The newspaper is being fair by not conjuring up facts that it didn’t witness.

  5. #5 Joel
    on Jan 6th, 2009 at 9:22 pm


    I agree with you, but I’m not “holding my breath.”

    The NYTimes never retracted their false reporting on “The Gulf of Tonkin Incident.” And, just yesterday, they gave John Bolton and John Yoo a platform on their op-ed page. Their real motto is: “All the news we see fit to print.”

    Big Media still casts a spell on our society, but it’s weakening.

    Yours in Digital Justice,

  6. #6 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jan 8th, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    According to the Atlantic, Joel may get his wish.

    Torture? I’d worry about solvency…