The Bush administration’s love and support of torture in the wake of 9/11 will become their indelible legacy long after all the Bush cronies are dead in the ground. Bush couldn’t get away with a torture policy all on his own, though. Bush had to have help. He had a lot of help from the mainstream media, including perennial “liberal bogeyman” for “The Hard Right” — The New York Times — who played coy with using the word “torture” in their reporting even though torture is precisely what the Bush administration was doing. Why hide the word? Why not call torture torture? Who and what were the New York Times protecting, and why?
The New York Times’ public editor tried, this week, to wrap his mind around the sly use of the word “terror” at his newspaper — and while his effort is much too late and quaint — it is good to see the grave mistake is finally being addressed by the media giant:
The controversy over The Times’ use of the term “torture,” which was discussed two years ago by my predecessor, Clark Hoyt, has its roots in the newsroom’s aspiration to be impartial in a dispute that is both political and legal.
The Bush administration offered formal legal opinions that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” it authorized were not torture under United States law. The Times adopted the view that labeling these as “torture” in news articles could create the appearance of taking sides.
Journalistically, The Times’s reasoning went, it was better to use descriptive terms. At the time of Mr. Hoyt’s column, The Times’s preferred adjective was in the process of migrating from “harsh” to “brutal.”
Upstairs in the editorial department, meanwhile, things have been clearer and easier all along. “We made the decision early and relatively quickly: Waterboarding, specifically, has been considered torture for a long time,” said Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, referring to international protocols.
“The Bush people were going out of their way to redefine the word ‘torture.’ We felt that our using the word ‘torture’ was really important.”
The editorial department had the easier path: it could just weigh in with an opinion. In the newsroom, though, taking sides was the wrong thing to do. The result was that The Times, in the view of some, appeared to mince words.
The disconnect at the Times is just too grievously cute for mincing. They had it one way and no way and every way — but the fact remains that the Times rigidly refused to properly use the word “torture” when it counted as the reporting was happening in real time. The Times was in tight with the Bush administration and they didn’t want to rock the boat or risk being perceived as biased even though they actively helped the Bush agenda find solid footing in the mainstream American mind — and that was a tough trick when conservatives roundly grounded the Times into the ground for being a biased liberal messiah.
We must pay attention when words are used against us and call out the wrong and set it right — but knifing our way into that truth is much harder when the right and proper word is purposefully not invoked. We are left to guess at real meaning and we gnaw around the edges trying to divine definition with our teeth — all the while those in the know, know precisely what’s happening, because they created meaning without speaking or printing the word, and they are set free to continue their habitual terrorizing of the American spirit with a torture policy that is, and always was, illegal and unnecessary.