Redefining Journalism: Follow Up

Glenn Greenwald of Salon comments on a study done by students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that shows just how in the back pocket of government and Power the establishment media in this country has become.

“We don’t need a state-run media” says Greenwald, “because our media outlets volunteer for the task.”

The Harvard study looked at how the four newspapers with the largest circulation dealt with waterboarding prior to and after the Bush administration adopted it as standard practice.  The study found that prior to 2004, when it became known that the United States was waterboarding detainees, the newspapers almost universally called the interrogation method torture:  Their research found that from the 1930’s until 2002, The New York Times classified it as torture 81.5% of the time (in 44 of 54 articles), The Los Angeles Times called it torture in 96.3% (26 of 27) articles.

Since 2002, the study shows, things have changed DRAMATICALLY!  From 2002-2008, the New York Times called or implied waterboarding was torture only 1.4% of the time (2 of 143 articles).  The LA Times did so in 4.8% (3 of 63) of their articles.  The Wall Street Journal called it torture in 1.6% of instances (1 of 63), while the USA Today never considered waterboarding torture.

They also found that the newspapers were far more likely to call waterboarding torture if it was referring to another country other than the U.S. that was using the technique.  But if it’s the U.S. that’s doing it, decidedly no longer torture.

Once the Bush administration declared that waterboarding was decidedly not torture, it seems that our media’s tune changed.  Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that the administration threatened to pull access to any media outlet that continued to use the term torture, but the change in tune is directly correlated to when it became common knowledge that U.S. officials were routinely using the technique.

It’s the old “if we do it, it can’t be bad” excuse.

So much for the 1st Amendment and freedom of the press.

UPDATE: Yahoo! news has a story on the Harvard report, including an acknowledgment of sorts that the NY Times did indeed change the way they referred to waterboarding, but that it was all in the name of good journalism:

However, the Times acknowledged that political circumstances did play a role in the paper’s usage calls. “As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists “regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture.” He continued: “So that’s what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

In other words, calling waterboarding “torture” in the news pages of the paper against the Bush Administration’s will would have been politicizing the debate and tantamount to taking sides in the debate.  As if changing your tune and following the wishes of the administration isn’t, in effect, taking sides.

Say one thing for the Bushies:  They certainly did have a masters degree in manipulating the press.


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