Bill Keller's self-defense on "torture"

The New York Times Editor dismisses debates over "torture" as "tendentious political correctness"

Published July 3, 2010 11:04AM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV [Sunday])

In response to the Harvard study documenting how newspapers labeled waterboarding as "torture" for almost 100 years until the Bush administration told them not to, The New York Times issued a statement justifying this behavior on the ground that it did not want to take sides in the debate.  Andrew Sullivan, Greg Sargent and Adam Serwer all pointed out that "taking a side" is precisely what the NYT did:  by dutifully complying with the Bush script and ceasing to use the term (replacing it with cleansing euphemisms), it endorsed the demonstrably false proposition that waterboarding was something other than torture.  Yesterday, the NYT's own Brian Stelter examined this controversy and included a justifying quote from the paper's Executive Editor, Bill Keller, that is one of the more demented and reprehensible statements I've seen from a high-level media executive in some time (h/t Jay Rosen):

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said the newspaper has written so much about the issue of water-boarding that "I think this Kennedy School study -- by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories -- is somewhat misleading and tendentious."

Whether an interrogation technique constitutes "torture" is what determines whether it is prohibited by long-standing international treaties, subject to mandatory prosecution, criminalized under American law, and scorned by all civilized people as one of the few remaining absolute taboos.  But to The New York Times' Executive Editor, the demand that torture be so described, and the complaint that the NYT ceased using the term the minute the Bush administration commanded it to, is just tendentious political correctness:  nothing more than trivial semantic fixations on a "term of art" by effete leftists.  Rather obviously, it is the NYT itself which is guilty of extreme "political correctness" by referring to torture not as "torture" but with cleansing, normalizing, obfuscating euphemisms such as "the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks" and "intense interrogations."  Intense.  As Rosen puts it:  "So, Bill Keller, 'the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks' is plainspeak and 'torture' is PC?  Got it."

Worse, to justify his paper's conduct, Keller adds "that defenders of the practice of water-boarding, 'including senior officials of the Bush administration,' insisted that it did not constitute torture."  Kudos to Keller for admitting who dictates what his newspaper says and does not say (redolent of how Bush's summoning of NYT officials to the Oval Office caused the paper to refrain from reporting his illegal NSA program for a full year until after Bush was safely re-elected).  Senior Bush officials said it wasn't torture; therefore, we had to stop telling our readers that it is.

And then there's this, from Cameron Barr, National Security Editor of The Washington Post, which also ceased using "torture" on command:  "After the use of the term 'torture' became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration."  Could you imagine going into "journalism" with this cowardly attitude:  once an issue becomes "contentious" and one side begins contesting facts, I'm staying out of it, even if it means abandoning what we've recognized as fact for decades.  And note how even today, in an interview rather than an article, Barr continues to use the government-subservient euphemism:  "waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration."  Just contemplate what it means, as Keller and Barr openly admit, that our government officials have veto power over the language which our "independent media" uses to describe what they do.

I'm not one who wishes for the death of newspapers, as they still perform valuable functions and employ some good journalists.  But I confess that episodes like this one tempt me towards that sentiment.  This isn't a case where the NYT failed to rebut destructive government propaganda; it's one where they affirmatively amplified and bolstered it, and are now demonizing their critics by invoking the most deranged rationale to justify what they did:  political correctness?  And whatever else is true, there is no doubt the NYT played an active and vital role in enabling the two greatest American crimes of the last decade:  the attack on Iraq and the institutionalizing of a torture regime.  As usual, those who pompously prance around as watchdogs over political elites are their most devoted and useful servants.


UPDATE: As he did with so many things, George Orwell perfectly described the destruction enabled by the Bill Kellers of the world in Politics and the English Language (h/t Casual Observer):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.  Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.  Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

What was a matter of central concern for Orwell as an instrument of enabling evil ("language can also corrupt thought") has become, to "journalist" Bill Keller, nothing more than irritating and tendentious political correctness.  That's how far and how quickly we've devolved.


UPDATE II: Anyone with doubts about how journalistically corrupt the NYT is here should read this superb post by The NYTPicker.  It quotes William Safire in his NYT "On Language" column as writing: "If the word torture . . .  means anything . . . then waterboarding is a means of torture," and -- more important -- cites numerous news articles written by the very same Bill Keller, when he was a NYT reporter, in which he applied the Tendentious P.C. term "torture" to interrogation techniques used by the Soviet Union despite the fact that the Soviet government insisted that such techniques were not "torture" under the law.  He used the term "torture" for other foreign governments as well, despite those government's denials.  As the site notes:  "In his own foreign reporting, Keller didn't bother to clutter his stories with the obvious -- and irrelevant -- denials by Soviet and South African government officials that they were engaged in torture.  He used his own judgment to recognize torture for what it was." 

Keller's mentality has nothing to do with "journalism":  it's only when the U.S. Government tells him that its torture is not "torture" does he immediately comply by ceasing to use the term.  Kynan Barker asks a very good question:  "If NYT/WaPo's credibility is now contentious, should they avoid using the PC term 'journalism' to describe their activities?"


UPDATE III: In November, 2006, Matt Lauer announced that NBC News would begin referring to the conflict in Iraq as a "civil war," notwithstanding the Bush White House's vehement objections to the term, because their best news judgment led them to believe the term applied.  So congratulations to Matt Lauer and The Today Show for venturing into oh-so-bold journalistic spaces -- using "contentious" descriptive labels of which the White House disapproves -- which Bill Keller and The New York Times are unwilling to enter.


UPDATE IV: In lieu of posts here today, I'll recommend several worthwhile links:  

(1) this typically incisive cartoon from Tom Tomorrow, who said it was partially motivated by the debate I had last week over Obama's power with reflexive-Obama-defenders Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Bernstein and others;

(2) one of the aspects of blogs I've always liked best is that one can unexpectedly and randomly encounter very insightful political commentary from blog comments; without endorsing all of it, this comment, sent to me by a reader, is one such example;

(3) this New York Times story from yesterday, which details how the much heralded "withdrawal" from Iraq is basically a meaningless semantic game (summing up so much of the Obama administration [pretty words accompanied by cosmetic changes] is this:  "'In practical terms, nothing will change,' said Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, the top American military spokesman in Iraq");

(4) FAIR published a post criticizing an article from Time's Alex Perry for concealing from Time's readers the key role the U.S. played in the tyranny in the Congo which Perry condemns, and Perry wrote numerous and increasingly bitter responses in the comment section providing great insight into how so many journalists think:  both entertaining and informative; and,

(5) Tying much of this together, Dan Gillmor notes this Nelson Mandela 2002 observation:  "A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press."

By Glenn Greenwald

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