New York Times: Call Torture by the Right Name

Over the weekend The New York Times published an editorial addressing public criticism for the paper’s inconsistent use of the word “torture” to characterize the Bush Administration’s interrogations techniques. Last week, PHR submitted a letter to the editor on this very topic:

In “The Torture Apologists,” (Editorial, May 5), The New York Times finally gets it right and calls the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques what they are — torture.

This wasn’t always the case. Last year a study at Harvard found a dramatic shift in the newspaper’s reporting when the United States authorized the use of waterboarding. The study found that after the U.S. policy shift, The Times rarely characterized waterboarding as torture, despite a long history of classifying it as such.

As the newspaper of record, The Times should understand the power of words. Calling torture “tough treatment”  as Scott Shane and Charlie Savage do in their article on May 4 is a gross understatement that makes waterboarding, stress positions and sleep deprivation sound more like a form of stern parental discipline.

As the battle over the use of torture continues, let’s at least call it by the right name.

In Saturday’s piece in The Times, Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane says the decision was made in an effort to remain impartial on the topic:

“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.”

Regardless of the Bush administration’s claims about the legality of these so-called “ techniques,” they have long been defined as torture by The Times, the United States Government and the international community. When The Times changed their characterization of these techniques, they weren’t refusing to take sides, they were throwing the widely accepted definition of torture out the window and bowing to the political agenda and public relations campaign waged by the Bush administration.

Journalists have an ethical responsibility to report the news, without bias, to the public. An open discussion of the problem is a start, but to show real progress, The Times must change the newsroom’s characterization of torture in all future articles.

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