No Comment — March 18, 2009, 12:54 pm

When Torture is “Torture”

One moment still serves to define the Bush Administration’s relationship with the press. On April 29, 2006, comedian Stephen Colbert addressed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, with President Bush present, and ripped into the press corps (“I have nothing but contempt for these people,” he uttered at one point, creating a bond with his television audience but drawing embarrassed recognition and no laughter from the correspondents present).

Over the last five years, you people were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. … And then you write, Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”

The two years that followed, the Bush Administration really did prove to be the political equivalent of the Hindenburg. The American public got the message, but they had to look past the White House press corps to get it. As the Bush Administration has faded into history, the press corps’s coddling and indulgent attitude towards them didn’t change. We saw two solid demonstrations of this in the last few days.

For two years, journalists in Washington have pressed to secure a copy of a confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross on what went on in the CIA’s black sites. The report was compiled based on interviews conducted with fourteen former black site prisoners, each of whom was held in isolation and interviewed at length by the Red Cross. The scoop finally went to Mark Danner, a leading journalist covering the topic. The interviews revealed a compelling, virtually identical series of accounts of torture to which the prisoners were subjected.

But how did the mainstream media react? A good example came from the Washington Post. In a front-page article, the Post places the word “torture” in scare quotes at each appearance. And it then offers this astonishing headlined conclusion: “Secret Report Implies That U.S. Violated International Law.” Let’s imagine a comparable treatment of last week’s incident in South Alabama in which a young police trainee, Michael McLendon, ran amok, shooting and killing ten before taking his own life. Would the Post characterize the police report on the incident as “implying that the law was violated?” But, as Danner told me in an interview

in this report they spoke bluntly and forcefully, saying that the conduct was torture. That of course is a violation of international law. But it is also a violation of domestic law. It is a crime, in fact.

Precisely. It is a serious crime, carrying the possibility of harsh sentences, including the death penalty, for those who commit it. All facts that the Post strains to keep from the attention of its readers. But the behavior of the New York Times was still more mystifying. Although it carried an extended excerpt of the New York Review of Books piece on its Sunday op-ed pages, the Times failed to report the story as news. This is a bizarre editorial judgment, and it made me think back to the half-dozen Times reporters who have pressed me for ideas for how to get hold of the Red Cross report over the last two years. In an interview yesterday with C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, Danner looked at the media’s failures in dealing with the torture issue:

One can continue to talk about torture is in the eye of the beholder, etc etc, but frankly, nobody of any legal reputation believes that… I am frustrated by the practices of the press. They are interfering with a clear debate.

I think the definitional question is extremely important, and as I mentioned a moment ago, I think it’s extremely important to get by it already. We’re debilitated in that by some degree by the practices of the American press, frankly, which is that as long as the president or people in power continue to cling to a definition that they assert is the truth — as President Bush did when it came to torture, he said repeatedly the United States does not torture — the press feels obliged to report that and consider the matter as a question of debate.

On the same day that the Red Cross documentation of torture with high-level government approval appeared, CNN’s John King interviewed former Vice President Dick Cheney. King gave us another demonstration of the fawning relationship between the Washington, D.C., press corps and the Bush team. King’s questions were a pathetic set-up, allowing Cheney to deliver a message which was a near verbatim repetition of Cheney’s last several talks with CNN and Fox reporters. Eschewing a tradition which calls for silence from recently departing administration officials, Cheney lambasted the Obama Administration, insisting that their decision to outlaw torture was making the nation less safe.

King failed to ask a single penetrating follow-up or challenge. He could, for instance, have asked Cheney about the Red Cross conclusion that the procedures he authorized and advocated were torture, which was grabbing the headlines as his interview went live. He could have asked Cheney how he reconciled his view with statements of professional interrogators, like Major Matthew Alexander, who states flatly that Cheney’s torture techniques are responsible for the deaths of 4,000 Americans in Iraq and furnished the chief recruitment tool used by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other terrorist groups. He could have demanded that Cheney provide actual evidence for his claim that American lives were saved as a result of the use of torture. He could even have asked Cheney to comment on the headline-grabbing disclosures from Sy Hersh that Cheney had personally directed a targeted-killings program using personnel from Special Forces. Any of these questions would have required Cheney to grapple with serious issues rather than simply dish up his preformed and increasingly crude and unsupported propaganda.

King, however, behaved throughout the interview not like a serious reporter, but like a victim in the Dark Lord’s death trance. Andrew Sullivan sums up the embarrassing spectacle of the King interview this way:

Telling the truth – and confronting the powerful with it – ruins the aura of objectivity; and offends sources whom one needs for future scoops. It makes an interview unpleasant and confrontational, when both Cheney and King go out of their way to signal their familiarity and almost friendship with one another. King did ask some tough questions in this interview, but not the question that every historian will want to ask and that Cheney didn’t want to answer.

In the view of the Washington press corps, however, the controversy about the Cheney interview stemmed not from the pathetic performance that King put in, but from events of the following day. The White House press secretary made light of Cheney, saying that “Rush Limbaugh must have been busy” and that Cheney was the “second most popular member of the Republican cabal.”

It’s noteworthy that Cheney’s preposterous remarks drew no criticism from the White House press corps—they were accepted at face value. But Gibbs’s attack on Cheney drew a harsh slap down. “Wow—we’re talking about the former vice president here” said ABC’s Rick Klein. And CBS’s Chip Reid reacted with similar indignation:

Can I ask you, when you referred to the former vice president, that was a really hard-hitting, kind of sarcastic response you had. This is a former Vice President of the United States. Is that the attitude–is that the sanctioned tone toward the former vice president of the United States from this White House now?

NBC’s Chuck Todd then piled on with the same comment, making the condemnation of the three networks unanimous. But these attitudes reflect a continuing failure of critical objectivity with respect to the Bush Team on a critical issue–torture. The prime mission of the press is to keep the public informed about the government and its workings. Are they doing their job in a competent fashion if they refuse to confront those in power with the evidence of their misdeeds, and even criminal conduct, and demand answers?

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