New York Times Edges Closer to Honesty re Torture

A New York Times editorial about newly confirmed CIA director John Brennan gets tough on Brennan and his allies regarding torture:

(A)t his Senate confirmation hearing in February, he appeared to be one of the few people (apart from maybe Dick Cheney and some other die-hard right-wingers) who thinks there is some doubt still about whether the Bush administration tortured prisoners, hid its actions from Congress and misled everyone about whether coerced testimony provided valuable intelligence.

The editorial writer might have added another large group of quasi-deniers to this list: the news media, including the New York Times’ own news pages, which for years have refused to call torture what it is.

In fact, the editorial links to an article the Times ran a day earlier. This piece, by Scott Shane, discussed a Senate report about U.S. practices. But while it edged closer to honesty than what we’ve seen before, Shane and his editors went into all kinds of contortions to avoid a simple, declarative statement on the topic. Look at the language.

  • “…so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding…”
  • “…Democratic critics of what they call a morally and practically disastrous experiment in torture…”
  • “…Republican defenders who say the report is biased and fault President Obama for banning coercive interrogations…”
  • “…brutal interrogations…”
  • “…enhanced interrogation techniques…”
  • and so on.

At one point, the article  comes close to telling the literal truth, when it calls the Senate report

by far the most thorough examination of how the United States came to use nudity, cold, sleep deprivation, stress positions, wall-slamming and waterboarding, methods it had long condemned as abuse or torture.

The Times news pages have demonstrated utter  journalistic cowardice for years on this topic. After 9/11, when the Bush administration insisted that it was employing “harsh interrogation techniques,” the Times joined the vast majority of major American news organizations that adopted this Orwellian language to describe techniques that are, in fact, torture by any rational definition — and which the U.S. has officially prosecuted as torture when used by others.

The Times’ behavior in this regard has been particularly reprehensible given the feeble excuse offered by the paper after a Kennedy School study made clear news organizations’ hypocrisy. The newspaper said it would be “taking sides” to use the correct language, unaware that channeling Orwell was itself taking sides.

The Times editorial page found its spine a while back. As the Brennan editorial shows, the editorial writers are allowed to call torture what it is, with none of the evasions the news page editors have insisted on for all these years.

As the Shane story this week makes apparent, the news sections staff members are beginning to recover their collective spine. His piece comes after a December article about Zero Dark Thirty, the movie that all but endorsed torture, when the Times referred to “CIA torture” in the headline, though the story itself bent over backwards not to follow suit in a direct way.

Someday the New York Times — America’s best and most important newspaper — will re-declare independence from whatever fear or calculation led it to be so cowardly for so long. May that day come sooner than later.

Political Columnist: Please Look in the Mirror

The New York Times’ Gail Collins offers some sound advice in her column about the latest presidential campaign: “Ignore Iowa.” She writes:

Perhaps this would be a good time to point out that the Iowa caucuses are really ridiculous.

I tend to agree with Collins’ general point. The caucuses are unrepresentative, quirky and even idiotic. What disappoints me about her column, however, is the utter lack of self-awareness it demonstrates.

On the Times’ Politics web page, an aggregation of articles from the past several days (but mostly current stories), you will find no fewer than seven pieces from Iowa. See where I’m going? Of course you do: Collins is dissing the event that her own newspaper has helped make such a national production.

The column Collins could have written would have made all of the good points of the original. It then would have gone one step further: to urge her bosses and colleagues to stop being among the chief promoters of the absurdity.

New York Times’ Incoherent Honorifics

In the New York pages of today’s New York Times you’ll find a terrific story about a Cuban bicyclist named Damian Lopez Alfonso, who hasn’t let his handicaps (no arms) stop him from becoming a competitive racer. As the Times style requires, the story refers to him as Mr. Alfonso.

Had this story appeared in another logical location — the sports pages — the “Mr.” would have been removed. This is also a requirement of the Times’ style guide.

The Times mandates courtesy titles (Mr., Ms., etc.) only in news stories, though it drops them for some dead people and those it arbitrarily considers evil enough not to deserve them. For example, Osama Bin Laden lost his Mr. after US forces killed him in May. But Saddam Hussein was recently still being called Mr. Hussein, as Slate notes.

Entertainers get honorifics in the Times, so you’ll read stories about the Rolling Stones you’ll see references to Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards. (The Times reviewer of this Meat Loaf concert apparently couldn’t bring himself to writing the laugh-out-loud “Mr. Loaf,” and just used “Meat Loaf” throughout.)

Athletes — at least those deemed newsworthy by the Times — are entertainers, too. The make lots of money. They take lots of drugs. They get arrested. Oh, they perform. But no honorifics for them.

The Wall Street Journal used to be consistent. But in a recent move that was semi-lampooned even by its own columnist, it opted to drop the honorifics for stories in the sports section. The logic for the move? None, apart from the notion that it somehow sounded better, or at least less ridiculous, to just go with last names.

These policies aren’t just inconsistent. They’re incoherent.

They’re also a quaint vestige of a dying era, when the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the vanishingly small number of other papers that do this actually believed they were showing respect for the people they covered. (Except for supremely evil people and athletes, who obviously deserve none.) Did the papers self-enforced civility (except for athletes and people deemed supremely evil) may actually have had an impact on the journalists’ work, or on the perception of the newspapers that had this policy?

But respect is in short enough supply in our society. There’s nothing wrong with honorifics, if they’re used consistently. The incoherent policies at the Times and Journal don’t demonstrate respect for the people they cover when they deliberately omit courtesy titles for a single class of people in specific pages; rather, they demonstrate disrespect.