No Comment — May 12, 2009, 9:10 am

The Times’s Torture Hypocrisy

A couple of weeks back I was interviewed by Brooke Gladstone for NPR’s On the Media. As usual with such things, the interview ran about a half hour and NPR snipped out roughly six minutes from it. Those are the normal rules of the game, and I have no complaints about that. A large part of what was left on the editor’s floor was an extended discussion of the New York Times and its history of dealing with the word “torture.” I noted that in the pre-Bush era, the Times had absolutely no compunction about calling certain practices “torture,” but when the Bush administration began to use them, the word was suddenly off-limits, or only used in the most circumspect way (“a practice which critics of the administration call ‘torture,’” for instance). A good example can be found in reporting about the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, on which the Times played an essential role. The Khmer Rouge’s waterboarding was “torture.” But Bush Administration waterboarding is just an “enhanced interrogation technique.” What’s behind the distinction? It’s a blend of fear and hypocrisy.

A week ago, Dana Priest of the Washington Post (which has a similar problem with using the T-word) came close to candor in an online chat session in which she acknowledged that the Post won’t use the word “torture” to describe the Bush program because the Bush Administration itself doesn’t. What she really means, of course, is that the Post knows that the Bush Administration would have had a fit had they used the word.

But this week, the Times exposed its hypocrisy in a most revealing way. It happened on the obituary pages, in a piece that ran about former Air Force Colonel Harold E. Fischer. The headline and lede of the piece talk about how Fischer was “routinely tortured” in a Chinese prison. Indeed he was. Here are the details of the torture:

He was kept in a dark, damp cell with no bed and no opening except a slot in the door through which a bowl of food could be pushed. Much of the time he was handcuffed. Hour after hour, a high-frequency whistle pierced the air. After a short mock trial in Beijing on May 24, 1955, Captain Fischer and the other pilots — Lt. Col. Edwin L. Heller, First Lt. Lyle W. Cameron and First Lt. Roland W. Parks — were found guilty of violating Chinese territory by flying across the border while on missions over North Korea. Under duress, Captain Fischer had falsely confessed to participating in germ warfare.

Fischer describes his persistent interrogator, a Chinese army officer named Chong:

“He wanted me to admit that I had been ordered to cross the Manchurian border,” Captain Fischer told Life magazine. “I was grilled day and night, over and over, week in and week out, and in the end, to get Chong and his gang off my back, I confessed to both charges. The charges, of course, were ridiculous. I never participated in germ warfare and neither did anyone else. I was never ordered to cross the Yalu. We had strict Air Force orders not to cross the border.”

Fischer describes sleep deprivation and other techniques, including stress positions, used by the Communist Chinese to “break” prisoners. Those familiar with the Bush program will see the similarities: in fact, the Bush program was derived directly from these very Communist Chinese methods, reverse engineered through the SERE program. The Bush program is not necessarily milder, either. In fact, at taxpayers’ expense, psychologists were paid to update and sharpen the Communist Chinese techniques. But note the difference in Timesspeak: Mao’s People’s Liberation Army uses them, they’re “torture.” Bush uses them, they’re not.

Andrew Sullivan offers a searing analysis in a letter to the editors of the Times that will probably never be published. He throws the rationale that Times editors use to avoid the word torture right back in their faces:

I was dismayed to see in your obit of Col. Fischer the description of his detention in a Chinese prison as ‘torture’. As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a debate throughout our country as to which interrogation techniques constitutes torture.

What you may not be aware of is that your paper has already declared its position in that debate: Undecided. I will refer you to Clark Hoyt’s April piece titled ‘Telling the Brutal Truth’, in which Washington editor Doug Jehl was quoted saying “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture…hasn’t been resolved by a court.” He then added “On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” Your article made no mention as to whether Col. Fischer’s interrogator, Chong, was either charged or convicted of torture. As such, in order to help the Times retain its consistency, I request that you change every instance of ‘prisoner’ in your article to ‘enemy combatant’ and change ‘torture’ to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. I’d also think it to be prudent if you could also expand the scope of the obit to better flesh out the background of Chong, the interrogator. Perhaps describe the pressure he was under from his superiors to produce intelligence about germ warfare from Col. Fischer as a way to explain his heavy-handedness.

The language used by the Times and similar publication shapes the debate. Because major media outlets will not use the word “torture” to refer to the Bush program, large parts of the public now understand this as a “legitimate policy discussion.” The Times policy enables torture. It’s about as simple as that. George Orwell diagnosed the problem and the cure to it in a famous London Letter from 1945:

The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified. All these mental vices spring ultimately from the nationalistic habit of mind, which is itself, I suppose, the product of fear and of the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization…. I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.

The Times needs to make that moral effort. Its failure to do so is alarming.

Kudos to Charles Kaiser at the Columbia Journalism Review, whose chronicling of the Times’s dissembling on torture is a lesson to all of us in solid critique of journalistic malpractice.

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