NYT Public Editor dances around 'Brutal Truth' of torture

(updated below: updates I-II)

by Brad Jacobson

Clark Hoyt’s New York Times public editor column on Sunday, “Telling the Brutal Truth,” brings the ongoing “debate” over whether waterboarding is torture to brave new heights of absurdity.

Hoyt opens the column:

A LINGUISTIC [all caps are Hoyt’s] shift took place in this newspaper as it reported the details of how the Central Intelligence Agency was allowed to strip Al Qaeda prisoners naked, bash them against walls, keep them awake for up to 11 straight days, sometimes with their arms chained to the ceiling, confine them in dark boxes and make them feel as if they were drowning.

Reading this, you might think, “Finally, in its news pages, the Times is going to call waterboarding what it is and what it always has been since its first recorded use during the Spanish Inquisition — torture. Plain and simple.” Yet you would be gravely disappointed.

For Hoyt then writes:

Until this month, what the Bush administration called “enhanced” interrogation techniques were “harsh” techniques in the news pages of The Times. Increasingly, they are “brutal.” (On the editorial page, they long ago added up to “torture.”)

Such wordplay echoes the deadpan satiric riffs of The Marx Brothers, Monty Python and George Carlin. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine Groucho, Cleese or Carlin, in the role of a buffoonish government official or a radio or TV anchor oblivious to the inanity of his own news copy, delivering these lines in which Orwellian jargon is dispensed to the breaking point of all reason and laughter is the only sane response…when such lines are intended as comedy.

Of course, the screamingly obvious subtext, the 800 lb. gorilla juggling chainsaws under klieg lights, if you will, is the absurdity that what’s in question here is not whether to call the “techniques” such as waterboarding “torture” but rather whether to call them “harsh” or “brutal.”

The following paragraph encapsulates Hoyt’s stubborn unwillingness to actually fulfill his column’s title — “Telling the Brutal Truth” — and the obfuscation he employs to keep the focus away from the 800 lb. gorilla called Torture. Simultaneously, and preposterously, when taking into account what’s actually at stake here, he portrays the Times‘editorial struggle over whether to use “harsh” or “brutal” as a noble journalistic enterprise worthy of praise.

The choice of a single word involved separate deliberations in New York and the Washington bureau and demonstrated the linguistic minefields that journalists navigate every day in the quest to describe the world accurately and fairly. In a polarized atmosphere in which many Americans believe the nation betrayed its most fundamental ideals in the name of fighting terror and others believe extreme measures were necessary to save lives, The Times is displeasing some who think “brutal” is just a timid euphemism for torture and their opponents who think “brutal” is too loaded.

Thus, the preponderance of this column lies almost wholly within these pointless parameters, as ludicrous as two emergency room doctors pedantically debating whether the point-of-entry of a new patient’s gunshot wound was his chest or his back as the patient bleeds to death on the operating table.

Hoyt provides he said/she said examples to show how the public has reacted. But in doing so, in this context, he turns the very idea of news reporting — that it should be based on fact rather than opinion — on its head and, in effect, concedes that Times editors, on news stories as serious as torture, are allowing public sentiment to color their reports.

Robert Ofsevit of Oakland, Calif., asked, “Why can’t The New York Times call torture by its proper name?” He added, “Please find more backbone and fulfill your journalistic responsibilities by describing these immoral and illegal practices for what they were.” Theodore Murray of Cambridge, Mass., said that if The Times fails to adopt the word torture, “you perpetuate the fantasy that calling a thing by something other than its name will change the thing itself.”

But Cynthia Jacobson of Phoenix said The Times is “outrageously biased” to use a term like brutal. “The Times has simply placed itself as one actor in a political fight, not a neutral media outlet,” she wrote.

And herein lies the crux of what Hoyt — who is supposed to be the Paper of Record’s ombudsman, not its cheerleader — should be addressing in this column: 1) If the Times called techniques such as waterboarding torture in its reporting, which it should based on U.S. and international law, legal experts, historians, military judges, combat veterans and human rights organizations, and described, however briefly, what that torture entailed, then the use of modifying adjectives such as “harsh” or “brutal” would not only be superfluous but, in a news story, better left out; and 2) isn’t the Times (along with any news outlet that has failed to report these acts as torture) directly responsible in some way for inspiring the kind of response it received from readers like Cynthia from Phoenix? If readers are not provided the facts — a) waterboarding is torture and b) torture is illegal — while Times editors are simultaneously ascribing arbitrary descriptors to it like “brutal” or “harsh,” then the Times is not only denying its readers the necessary information to understand the issue but this denial may also lead directly to accusations of bias.

There’s a reason, of course, why people who get their news from FOX and Rush Limbaugh are clueless, nearly 100% of their vitriol ill-informed.

In an effort to, as Hoyt says, “describe the world accurately and fairly” (and I’d place emphasis on “fairly”), Times news editors and Mr. Hoyt have hedged their way into a euphemistic fog, relying, in the context of the “torture debate,” on describing the surface effect — “harsh,” “brutal” or otherwise — of a criminal act involving torture without reporting as fact the act is either torture or criminal.

The more Hoyt gives us behind-the-scenes details into these editorial decisions, in an effort to defend them, the more ridiculous and damning they appear. And the more he inadvertently makes the case that this approach has infected his newsroom, muddied the facts and invited arbitrary decision-making where it doesn’t belong.

The word [“brutal”] had appeared a few times before in this context, most recently, on April 10, when the Central Intelligence Agency said it was closing the network of secret overseas prisons where interrogations took place. Scott Shane, who covers national security, said he and his editor in the Washington bureau, Douglas Jehl, negotiated over the wording of the first paragraph. Shane wrote that methods used in the prisons were “widely denounced as illegal torture.” Jehl changed that to the “harshest interrogation methods” since the Sept. 11 attacks. Shane said he felt that with more information coming to light, including a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the words harsh and even harshest no longer sufficed. He proposed brutal, and Jehl agreed.

First, Hoyt blithely skips over the most telling fact here: Jehl censored Shane from reporting that these techniques were “widely denounced as illegal torture.” (Never mind even that description is misleading — torture is illegal. Period. But “illegal torture” may give the impression that these techniques were “widely denounced” as such, while other forms of torture are legal.) Moreover, Jehl’s edit seems influenced by two of the Bush administration’s most utilized rhetorical tools on the topic of torture: 1) the U.S. doesn’t torture (OK, delete “torture”) and 2) the U.S. instead calls it “enhanced interrogation techniques” (insert “interrogation methods”).

The bizarro world of this editorial process continues.

A week later, Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, came to her own conclusion that the facts supported a stronger word than harsh after she read just-released memos from the Bush-era Justice Department spelling out the interrogation methods in detail and declaring them legal. The memos were repudiated by President Obama.

“Harsh sounded like the way I talked to my kids when they were teenagers and told them I was going to take the car keys away,” said Abramson, who consulted with several legal experts and talked it over with Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief. Abramson and Baquet agreed that “brutal” was a better word. From rare use now and then, it had gone to being the preferred choice. The result of that decision was this top headline in the printed paper of April 17: “Memos Spell Out Brutal C.I.A. Mode of Interrogation.”

Maybe when Abramson “consulted with several legal experts” she should have been more concerned with verifying that such techniques were indeed torture, and brought that to her Washington bureau chief, instead of dithering over the relative meaninglessness of which adjective best described her article’s subject, torture, which, ipso facto, had occurred but which she and her paper nonetheless still refuse to report.

Hoyt then notes another reader’s dissatisfaction with Abramson and Baquet’s editorial — or is that “adjectorial”? — decision-making.

That offended Daniel Pilon of Solon Springs, Wis., who said he agreed that the article described brutality but did not want The Times making that judgment for him. “Presenting the facts and letting the reader decide how to characterize what happened would be more in the spirit of objective journalism,” Pilon said. He said The Times should have dropped all adjectives in this case.

Once again, however, Hoyt manages to elide the substance of the criticism. What offended Daniel from Wisconsin was less the adjective’s application than the machinations behind it and the effect of its use in context. A fine point, maybe, but an important distinction.

Daniel’s stated opinion is pretty much dead-on: “Presenting the facts and letting the reader decide how to characterize what happened would be more in the spirit of objective journalism.” I’d replace the present-day loaded word “objective”, pertaining to news reporting, with “responsible and accurate.” But other than, Dan from WI makes my point — that is, as long as the Times was “[p]resenting the facts” so the reader could “decide how to characterize what happened,” which it wasn’t and hasn’t in regards to “torture,” “waterboarding” and other known torture techniques.

But Hoyt then obfuscates this point with the help of a linguistic expert’s false equivalency.

I asked Deborah Tannen, an author and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, what she thought of a suggestion like Pilon’s. “The search for words that are not in any way evaluative is hopeless,” she told me. “All words have connotations.”

Tannen’s statement fails to address the reader from Wisconsin’s point and only further muddles what’s at stake. But it’s Hoyt’s responsibility for placing her answer in this context and for not making clear to Tannen what the reader was actually driving at: “[t]he Times should have dropped all adjectives in this case.” Drop the adjectives and the only “evaluative” words are either insufficient and misleading nouns such as “interrogation techniques” or the insertion of evaluative words that impart concrete, universally recognized meaning: dead or alive, hot or cold, up or down, torture or interrogation, legal or illegal.

Hoyt goes on to write:

I was not sure I saw a huge difference between harsh and brutal — my dictionary says one meaning of harsh is brutal. Tannen said there is a big difference, and she noticed the change in The Times right away. Brutal suggests something animal-like and “goes beyond the way humans are supposed to act,” she said.

Yes, “beyond the way humans are supposed to act,” just don’t call it “torture.” And no, in the context of a news story, in which editors refuse to call a criminal act by its name, there’s not a “huge difference between harsh and brutal.” That’s the point. But once more it’s buried under Hoyt’s narrow gaze.

Finally, Hoyt addresses the “T” word head-on (well, mainly vicariously through Washington bureau editor Douglas Jehl):

And why not, then, go all the way to torture? Jehl said that when the paper is discussing what is generally regarded as the most extreme interrogation method the C.I.A. used, waterboarding, “we’ve become more explicit in saying in a first reference that it’s a near-drowning technique” that Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and many other experts “have called torture.” But he said: “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” Jehl argued for precision and caution. I agree.

First, history has long ago reached a “verdict” on waterboarding, charges have been “filed,” “legal judgment rendered” — from the U.S. trying and hanging Japanese soldiers after WWII for torture that included waterboarding, to the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity which favored the torture technique, to the court martial of a U.S. soldier in 1968 after he was captured supervising the waterboarding of a North Vietnamese solider in a photo by the Washington Post, to a Texas sheriff and his three deputies’ conviction and sentence to four years in prison in 1983 for waterboarding prisoners. And this, of course, is hardly an exhaustive history.

Second, when any non-partisan expert is asked if waterboarding is torture, the response is a unanimous “yes.” Moreover, framing in a news story that those who believe it’s torture include “Obama and the Attorney General Eric Holder” instead of just citing, say, “most legal experts and historians,” is the very gruel that has fed this intellectually dishonest and historically blind “torture debate.” It actively, if unintentionally, politicizes something in a news story that is widely accepted as an historically and legally indisputable fact.

This justification by Jehl and Hoyt’s acceptance of it is nothing short of shameful and shameless, a abdication of their job as journalists under the guise of “caution” and to the detriment of “precision.”

A couple of paragraphs later, Hoyt begins to lay down his final verdict.

Reporters and editors need to leave moral and political judgments to editorial writers and readers, but they cannot be so detached that they appear oblivious to the implications of the facts.

How’s that for a rhetorical sleight of hand? “…but they cannot be so detached that they appear oblivious to the implications of the facts.But Hoyt doesn’t mind, in this context, if his reporters and editors appear oblivious to the facts directly, i.e. waterboarding is torture and torture is illegal, as long as these omitted facts are supported in their absence by tough modifiers such as “brutal.”

His last lines sum up the weaselly nature of this whole enterprise, of both the roots of this bogus “torture debate” and why it continues to plague our discourse, our country and our Paper of Record.

The Times should strive to tell readers exactly what a given interrogation technique entails, as Shane does with waterboarding. But that is not always practical, as in a headline. When the paper needs a short description, the word brutal is accurate and appropriate, whether you think the acts were justified or not.

In effect, Hoyt is also saying: The Times shouldn’t tell its readers which “interrogation techniques” are historically and legally known forms of torture. Strong adjectives that confuse the matter and are relatively arbitrary, having little reason to be in a news report, are preferable at the paper to calling criminal acts by their proper name. And even if you’re a fan of torture, the adjective “brutal” is still appropriate in the context provided.

If we continue down this path, where mindless false debates trump the rule of law and where editors err on the side of “caution” by concealing facts that might anger members of a particular political stripe, we might one day be availed of other sensibly middle-of-the-road editorial decisions,” such as referring to rape as, say, “savagely lustful techniques” or murder as “bloodthirsty heart stoppage enhancement.”

While that might sound satirical now, who of us foresaw nine years ago that today, in the United States of America, there would not only be national debates over whether waterboarding is torture but also over the efficacy of torture itself?

That’s the brutal truth.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan provides excellent additional background on why waterboarding is irrefutably torture and asks, “Can Doug Jehl Read?

UPDATE II: Garrison Keillor says,Let War Crimes Be Bygones.” I’ve been a fan of Keillor’s radio program A Prairie Home Companion for years. I haven’t, however, followed his political commentary very closely. But I was surprised by this piece, which serves up each bogus reason why we shouldn’t prosecute those who tortured — it would be seen as retribution, a partisan witch hunt, we must only look forward, and we needed strongmen to bend the rules after 9/11.

If you’re a fan of his radio program, which is not political but always seemed to impart a general sense of decency and generosity of spirit, reading Keillor’s opinion on the “torture debate” is a truly disturbing experience. That voice, which I’d always found good-humored, wise and, even at times, arch — a seeming descendant of Twain — makes his explication of why no one should be prosecuted sound all the more twisted and incongruous with reality.

But by far these lines are the most abominable:

Remember that the country was in high post-9/11 jitters when the dreadful memoranda were written by the lawyers whom some Democrats want to haul into court. Apocalyptic visions were afloat of subway bombings, germ warfare, nuclear devices wiping out a major city — I remember walking around Manhattan and thinking much too vividly about such things — and in that atmosphere of painful vulnerability, the great bustling city practically indefensible, zealous men might consider desperate measures in the name of security. As Orwell said, “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” I think the American electorate knew whom they reelected in 2004. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney did not run on a human-rights platform. They ran as rough men who would guard our sleep. So go talk to the voters of Ohio about war crimes.

Cross-posted from MediaBloodhound.

4 replies »

  1. How wonderful the invocation of Orwell there. If only more people realized that Newspeak was a warning, not a recommendation.

    Great piece, as always….

  2. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not.

    Haven’t you heard, Mr. Hoyt? Ding, dong, the witch is dead.

    Awe-inspiring post.

  3. Thanks, guys. And hey, if you really want to be embarrassed for humanity, check out Charles Krauthammer’s WaPo op-ed today. It’s “people” like Krauthammer that make so many Americans think Tom Friedman is reasonable.

  4. Well done, Brad. While I appreciate any journalist’s struggle to find “the right word,” in The Times’ case, the right word is clearly NOT torture but SHOULD be.