Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Torture: The New York Times Gets the Right Result for the Wrong Reasons

I forgot to cross-post to this piece on the New York Times torture about-face I did on Friday with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, so here it is now. An excerpt:
I’ve been trying to feel good about the New York Times’ decade-late decision to call torture torture—that is, to “deploy the English language to describe things,” as the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple memorably put it. Obviously, late is better than never, and I don’t see how a reasonable person could possibly quibble with the result here. But the decision’s purported reasoning rendered me partially anhedonic about the result. And this morning, I think I realized why.
The problem is, the Times doesn’t acknowledge that it never should have agreed to adopt the government’s mandated nomenclature—Enhanced Interrogation Techniques—instead of plain English to describe behavior that the Times had always called torture until the Bush administration told them not to. Instead, it explains its reversal essentially by noting there had been a “dispute” about the word torture before, and now there isn’t. So while we get a good result this time, what happens the next time the government alerts the New York Times of the alleged existence of some sort of linguistic “dispute”?
And Jay Rosen has an excellent take on the same topic over at PressThink. Highly recommended.
Innocence, I said, is a production requirement. You need to satisfy it somehow. But there are different ways to generate enough “points” to make a thing reportable. For example: if the press pack is doing it, you’re home free. That’s as innocent as you can get, even if the story is wrong. If the government admits to it, you’re innocent for telling the public it happened. If the president urges Americans to face the fact, that’s all the cover you need. When the Times could hit its innocence numbers in other ways, DON’T USE THE WORD TORTURE ON OUR AUTHORITY was dropped from the production routine.
A couple things I should have noticed in my first take, but didn't until afterward:
Part of Baquet's explanation of the Times' reversal is that "when the first revelations emerged a decade ago... The word "torture" had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one."
In addition to my other points, I should have noted that this hasn't changed. Torture still has legal and general-purpose meanings (though as I argue in my FPF post, these definitions are virtually identical regardless). So how could the "dual meanings=can't use word" excuse have applied a decade ago but not still apply today?
Also, as I noted in the comments of Jay Rosen's post:
What’s ironic is that logically, the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute torture should have cued the Times that there wasn’t torture. The USG has a treaty obligation to investigate and prosecute credible allegations of torture . No investigation and prosecution (remember, the Senate reporter itself allegedly avoids the word) would seem to indicate… no torture.
So it’s hard to avoid concluding that what’s ultimately driving the Times’ reversal is the recognition that whatever they call torture is no longer terribly important. The Senate is done investigating “brutal treatment,” the Justice Department isn’t going to prosecute anyone, Obama has called it torture but in a way that will involve no consequences for anyone. Essentially, America’s descent into torture is passing into history, a distance safe enough for the Times to feel they can finally engage it.
All of which is just another way of agreeing with you that at root this is about the production of innocence. What’s doubly fascinating to the novelist in me is that I don’t think the Times is consciously aware of any of this. They must sense it on some level, but they can’t articulate it, probably in part because they don’t want to.
Which is of course a shame. The first step toward solving a problem is to acknowledge it exists.


Doug said...

Bravo! I wish that there more writers/bloggers other than thee (and me) which would acknowledge that torture is wrong. Not because it is ineffective. Not because it is illegal. Not because it encourages retaliation in kind. Just plain wrong, with no other justifications necessary in condemning torture as a practice.

Doug Mitchell

Unknown said...

You hit the head on the nail on this one.