Saturday, July 3, 2010

As A NYT Reporter, Bill Keller Freely Used The Word "Torture" To Describe Interrogation Techniques In Other Countries.

If the word torture, rooted in the Latin for “twist,” means anything (and it means “the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce”), then waterboarding is a means of torture.

-- William Safire, "On Languge," NYT Magazine, March 9, 2008

On February 18, 1987, a 38-year-old NYT reporter named Bill Keller published his first story about torture.

The young Moscow correspondent -- who, two years later, would win the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Soviet Union -- referred to "the torture case" in writing eloquently about revelations that officials in Petrozavodsk, in the Karelian republic, had been fired in the wake of torture accusations.

The Soviet Union, of course, was famous for its frequent denials that its institutions, including the K.G.B., used torture to interrogate its citizens. But as NYT reporter Scott Shane wrote in June of 2007, comparing 1950s Soviet torture to present-day American interrogation techniques: "Soviets denied such treatment was torture, just as American officials have in recent years."

Shane wrote those words in a "word-for-word" essay in the "Week In Review" section that carried the headline, "Soviet-Style ‘Torture’ Becomes ‘Interrogation.'"

Keller went on to write more than a dozen stories for the NYT -- from the Soviet Union and, later, South Africa -- that referenced interrogation techniques as "torture." His stories never alluded to any questioning of the term by the governments that used the techniques.

And while history has established without question that both the Soviet Union and South Africa subjected its prisoners to torture techniques, it has also made clear that those governments never acknowledged their actions as "torture" -- at least not until well after world outcry brought them to an end.

Keller's reportorial approach strikes us as relevant this morning, as the NYT's executive editor has come under fire for his comments yesterday defending the NYT's refusal to refer to "waterboarding" as torture in its news pages.

A study by students at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard has documented that the NYT had used the term "torture" to describe waterboarding only twice in 143 references between 2002 and 2008 -- after having called it torture in 44 of 54 stories between 1931 and 1999.

"Waterboarding" is a form of water torture in which a prisoner is held still while water is poured over the face to simulate the feeling of drowning, while leaving no physical marks.

Keller vigorously disputed the study in a story posted on the NYT website last night, and insisted that the NYT's policy of not calling waterboarding "torture" -- which he referred to as "a politically correct term of art" -- is entirely proper. He called the Harvard student study "misleading and tendentious."

Keller's argument is that because Bush administration officials have objected to the use of the term "torture" in describing waterboarding, for the NYT to use it in its news pages "amounts to taking sides in a political dispute."

But what Keller's current stance ignores is his own position as a reporter: that a government's definition of torture doesn't necessarily match the reality.

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 judgement to recognize torture for what it was.

"A factory worker, according to the report, was kicked so severely that doctors had to remove a ruptured spleen," Keller wrote in his 1987 account of Soviet police brutality. "The medical report said doctors had found three pints of clotted blood in the abdomen."

In applying a different standard to the NYT's coverage of waterboarding, Keller has betrayed a reprehensible weakness in the face of his own government's stance on torture -- one that he never showed in his years as a courageous and straightforward reporter.


Roberto said...

After a few dozen waterboardings, I bet Keller'd change his tune!

And you may want to reread your post with an eye to fixing typos ...

Anonymous said...

Keller is simply continuing to aide and abet torture after the fact. He may well have earned himself a seat on the bus to The Hague, should this once-great nation return to sanity (which could happen overnight).


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty much sure that I'm moving to Canada. I don't want to. And it'll mean going back to graduate school -- which I really don't want to do -- but I can't take it anymore. I can't find a job. I have no health coverage. And all I see in the news is either entertainment or whitewashing of the sins of the powerful. This country is so out of its mind that I don't think it can be woken up in time to save itself.

Anonymous said...

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?"

Anonymous said...

It should be noted that waterboarding doesn't "simulate" drowning, it IS drowning. Water does enter the air way into the lungs, and thus, even in a controlled environment one can die from asphyxiation due to drowning (or shock). Several prominent military personnel (Such as Malcolm Nance over at Small Wars Journal), including those who oversaw the SERE program on which the the technique was primarily based, have stated this numerous times (In articles, blog posts and even in Senate Testimony).

Anonymous said...

NYT even had on payroll regressive degenerates who justified the usage of torture, not only as a descriptive word in print, but also as a form of bad-assery. Bad girls and bad boys experimenting with their ra ra ra badness, emboldened every day by the portraiture of repulsive brownies out to do us harm.

Anonymous said...

What will the paper do when that Washington Post blogger demands that The Times call Hamas and Hezbollah "Freedom Fighters"?

"Torture" is a legal term like "murder." And the recent handful of cases have not been adjudged by competent authority to be that, no matter what ardent opponents of the practice say.

After all, for quite a period recently the word "interrogation" was proscribed where possible, and "questioning" was one viable alternative. Maybe just more bending to the bleat of the bloggers.

Anonymous said...

O please Lordy Lord, do mask Exec branch ordinances as political correctness, psychological warfare as psychodrama, emotional manipulation as wellness, and, to not overly distress the damsels in our midst, do muzzle our making of their terror lest the spectating dullards participate beyond viewership, and do ban all blogs that don't welcome our baton.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, the definition of "torture" in this context is a legal one. It appears the NYT is unwilling to take a stand on this, even though they go out of their way to take a stand diminishing the definition of "political speech". Even Safire's defintion, in which he uses the restrictive adjective "excrutiating", is too narrow. Here is how the UN Convention defines it:

..any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions.
—UN Convention Against Torture[1]

It seems to me, if waterboarding is intended to obtain information from a prisoner against his will, which it is, it pretty much automatically meets the above definition.

Anonymous said...

Make that "excruciating".

Anonymous said...

That is quite a loophole (so typical of the U.N.): "It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions."

That would seem to exclude an awful lot of law enforcement actions around the globe. Witness how the letter from the Bush administration's last attorney general addressed the legal basis for what the U.S. did.

Mukasey made such a strong case that neither Congress nor the Justice Department have proceeded against the officials who were involved, despite their publicly announced intentions.

Anonymous said...

Sure, there’s procedural clunkiness to forcing flow through an orifice to fill airways, but it’s no more than other involuntary medical treatment with possible side affects... Not worth more than a college essay... Patriotic folks need to fix their bouffant, get the grill running, and run a checklist on those condiments.

Anonymous said...

Under the UN Convention Against Torture, ALL the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques are torture, not just waterboarding.

Anonymous said...

If you're so concerned about U.N. Conventions, tell us also about the one on human rights. And then tell us how many countries other than Israel have been cited or sanctioned or even criticized for abuses. U.N. conventions are by and large idealism in the clouds. Fine and dandy if they work. But they don't apply to real life in most of the world. That is what the U.S. has to live with and contend with.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy how hearing the word "win" used to describe our adventure in Iraq. As if war criminals can win a war...

Anonymous said...

Keller's personal hypocrisy may be restricted to "torture," but for NTY as a whole, this seems to be more of a guiding principal. Reporting on anyone who can hit back is much more respectful than reporting on the powerless. Reporting on Christian (or Jewish) beliefs or practices gets the same genuflection of using only "acceptable" words,etc. But reporting on Hinduism, eg, or any small sect, the reporter is allowed to fully express their incredulity and disdain.