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The New York Times and the Politicization of Torture How the Press Covers Waterboarding

How the Press Covers Waterboarding

by ANTHONY DIMAGGIO

In recent months, the New York Times has displayed its commitment to fiercely adversarial reporting of U.S. foreign policy–fiercely, at least, within the boundaries of bi-partisan debate and dispute. In a December 9 editorial from 2007, the paper took an unabashedly anti-Bush administration stance on the issues of torture and waterboarding. The editors framed the CIA’s reliance on waterboarding–to which it admitted to using on three detainees over the last week–as "illegal under both federal laws and international compacts, including the Geneva Conventionsthe administration has foolishly flouted these laws, which were adopted to protect American citizens captured overseas, as much as suspects captured by Americans, from barbaric abuse by interrogators." This attack on the Bush administration comes at a time when the CIA itself admits to destroying hundreds of hours of tapes that recorded U.S. interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees.

The New York Times’ attack on the Bush administration and CIA also comes at a time when Democrats have grilled Bush’s nomination–Attorney General Michael Mukasey–for his reluctance to categorize waterboarding as torture, and during a battle between the White House and Congress over the prohibition of waterboarding in the Army Field Manual as a form of torture. It is worth noting, however, that the paper of record’s challenges to the Bush administration have followed the Democrat’s attacks on the Bush administration, rather than preceded them. Such a pattern of media dependency on political officials is reinforced in previous academic studies addressing the topic of torture. In When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media From Iraq to Katrina, media scholars Lance Bennett, Steven Livingston, and Regina Lawrence chronicle media dependence on government for the legitimization of dissent. The authors conclude that "the danger in the narrow scope of Washington journalism is simple: information that may be crucial for understanding and evaluating stories in the headlines goes unreported or woefully underreported, because it simply is not sanctioned by the powerful [official] sources that drive the news."

Bennett, Livingston and Lawrence argue that media reporting is most open to questioning government when other political leaders themselves are the ones leveling the criticisms. They cite the example of Abu Ghraib, in which American reporters increasingly described the activities of the U.S. as torture only after the admission of guilt by U.S. leaders. They analyzed 294 stories and editorials in the Washington Post from January to June 2004, and found that Abu Ghraib was described least often as an example of "torture," and more often with subtler terms such as a "scandal," or as an example of "mistreatment" or "abuse." The "torture" description of U.S. actions, however, suddenly gained tremendous currency in media coverage, after Senator John McCain sponsored a bill limiting the use of cruel and inhuman punishment against war detainees. In 54 stories examined in the post in late 2005, 77% used the torture description, as contrasted with the paper’s reluctance to appropriate the term in regards to Abu Ghraib.

I have found a similar pattern of docile reporting and editorializing in regards to the CIA waterboarding example. It has been public knowledge since at least mid-2004 that the Bush administration viewed waterboarding as an acceptable form of "interrogation" of detainees. It was in June of 2004 that Newsweek first reported on a legal memorandum from John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel, which listed waterboarding as an acceptable tactic to be used against alleged Al Qaeda detainees. As Newsweek reported, Yoo’s memo was "prompted by CIA questions about what to do with top Al Qaeda captive, Abu Zubaydah, who had turned uncooperative." President Bush had met with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and two Defense Department officials, concurring that waterboarding was one of many acceptable interrogation techniques. A subsequent NBC report from 2005 highlighted the claims of former CIA officials that the organization had engaged in waterboarding on multiple occasions.

Clearly, the Senate Democrats’ hostile questioning of Attorney General MuKasey (in late 2007) was not the first time the question of waterboarding emerged in the press. Similarly, the Democrats’ 2008 effort to outlaw waterboarding in the Army Field Manual followed years of reporting on U.S. support for, and use of, waterboarding. But how specifically did the media report waterboarding over the last few years? Was it independent of government manipulation or propaganda, or heavily influenced by official misinformation and spin? A review of the coverage in the New York Times from 2004 through 2008 shows that the paper’s reporters and editors were heavily influenced by the official debate in Washington, rather than remaining independent of that debate.

Despite the early Newsweek and NBC revelations about US waterboarding, the Times filed only a single story on the topic in 2004, and only ten stories, op-eds, or editorials in 2005. 2006 hardly fared any better, as the paper reported a mere nine stories, op-eds, or editorials on the issue of waterboarding. Attention changed dramatically, however, in 2007, in light of Mukasey’s questioning in front of the Senate. The Times filed 62 stories, op-eds, or editorials on waterboarding that year, over three times as many as were printed in 2004, 2005, and 2006 combined. The paper’s attention to waterboarding in the first five weeks of 2008 alone–during Congress’ attempt to outlaw the practice–equaled that for the entire year of 2006. The New York Times’ framing of the illegality of waterboarding is equally politicized. A review of the paper’s news stories, editorials, and op-eds from 2004 through 2008 shows that the torture description was used only once from 2004 through 2006, although it was adopted over 30 times in 2007 and 2008, when government feuding over waterboarding reached its height.

Media scholars Howard Friel and Richard Falk argue that human rights issues relating to international law have become highly politicized in the national press. Regarding the New York Times, they claim that the paper "is guilty of ignoring both international law when it conflicts with U.S. foreign policy and of relying on its authority when it supports official positions adopted in Washington." Friel and Falk’s conclusions are relevant when reviewing the Times’ reporting on waterboarding. Condemnations of waterboarding as illegal under national and international law were reserved overwhelmingly for the period when Democrats were willing to take on the issue, against the Bush administration, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and Republicans in Congress. Media attacks on the Bush administration for waterboarding are fierce indeed, but only in the period during and after Democratic challenges to the President. Those who decry the media for being "anti-American" or "too critical" of the political establishment should keep this reality in mind, as the waterboarding controversy demonstrates very clearly the limits of media independence from government.

ANTHONY DIMAGGIO has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. His book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding the News in the "War on Terror," is due out in April. He can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu