Waterboarding and ‘Torture’ in the American Media

Did the American media cover up torture by the Bush Administration?

An April paper by a large team at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy notes an interesting shift in the use of the word “torture” to describe the practice of waterboarding.  The Abstract:

[W]aterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding.

From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27).

By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.

For the sake of discussion, let’s take the finding at face value rather than quibbling over the methodology.   It’s conceivable that there are different degrees of waterboarding and that foreign countries use more extreme forms than that employed by our own government.  It’s also conceivable that pre-2002 use of the word “torture” was mostly in the form of official propaganda being quoted rather than a matter of pure editorial judgment.    But, in the main, the findings strike me entirely plausible.

Further, let me stipulate that I’ve been on the record repeatedly stating that waterboarding is torture.

What to make of all this?

Glenn Greenwald makes a  passionate case that it proves the “media’s servitude to the government.”

As always, the American establishment media is simply following in the path of the U.S. Government (which is why it’s the “establishment media”): the U.S. itself long condemned waterboarding as “torture” and even prosecuted it as such, only to suddenly turn around and declare it not to be so once it began using the tactic.  That’s exactly when there occurred, as the study puts it, “a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboading.”  As the U.S. Government goes, so goes our establishment media.

None of this is a surprise, of course.  I and others many times have anecdotally documented that the U.S. media completely changes how it talks about something (or how often) based on who is doing it (“torture” when the Bad Countries do it but some soothing euphemism when the U.S. does it; continuous focus when something bad is done to Americans but a virtual news blackout when done by the U.S., etc.).  Nor is this an accident, but is quite deliberate:  media outlets such as the NYT, The Washington Post and NPR explicitly adopted policies to ban the use of the word “torture” for techniques the U.S. Government had authorized once government officials announced it should not be called “torture.”

We don’t need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task:  once the U.S. Government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, U.S. media outlets dutifully cease using the term.  That compliant behavior makes overtly state-controlled media unnecessary.  In his proposed Preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell noted how completely the British Government during World War II was able to control media content without formal or official censorship

Andrew Sullivan is more succinct:

The editors who insisted on these changes remain liars and cowards and a disgrace to journalism and a free society. They should quit for this kind of open deception and craven cowardice in putting power before truth. They remind you that if you really want to understand what is going on in the world, the New York Times will only publish what the government deems is fit to print – even in its choice of words.

While there’s much truth in all of that, there’s actually a much simpler answer, which Adam Serwer summarizes beautifully:

I think it’s actually the conventions of journalism that are at fault here. As soon as Republicans started quibbling over the definition of torture, traditional media outlets felt compelled to treat the issue as a “controversial” matter, and in order to appear as though they weren’t taking a side, media outlets treated the issue as unsettled, rather than confronting a blatant falsehood. To borrow John Holbo‘s formulation, the media, confronted with the group think of two sides of an argument, decided to eliminate the “think” part of the equation so they could be “fair” to both groups.

Of course, this attempt at “neutrality” was, in and of itself, taking a side, if inadvertently. It was taking the side of people who supported torture, opposed investigating it as a crime, and wanted to protect those who implemented the policy from any kind of legal accountability. Most important, it reinforced the moral relativism of torture apologists, who argued that even if from an objective point of view, waterboarding was torture, it wasn’t torture when being done by the United States to a villain like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, but rather only when done by say, a dictator like Kim Jong Il to a captured American soldier.

Furthermore, Kevin Drum gets at something he perhaps didn’t intend when he snarks, “As always, where you stand depends on where you sit.”

The fact of the matter is that the United States Government was engaged in this policy against Very Bad People for reasons the American people enthusiastically supported.   Most Americans were nonplussed when news broke that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times because, after all, KSM was a Very Bad Man who did Unspeakably Horrible Things.

This puts the decisionmakers of the American press, whether they agreed or not, in a very difficult situation.  To have insisted that the U.S. Government was engaged in torture when the leaders of said Government adamantly denied that what they were doing constituted torture and most citizens supported the “enhanced interrogation techniques” and dismissed as buffoons those worried about poor widdle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have not only been taking sides in an ongoing debate but taking a very unpopular stand.

Additionally, the use of the word “torture” has legal and propaganda implications.  To have matter-of-factly stated that the U.S. Government was engaged in torture was to say that those carrying it out are criminals.  The press doesn’t do that with accused criminals, even when there’s incontrovertible video evidence.  And, of course, saying that the U.S. Government is engaged in “torture” is a propaganda victory for the enemy.  That’s a tough thing to do in wartime.

Further, while the press doubtless came to despise some members of the Bush Administration, they naturally had close relationships with the team and saw most of its members as good people trying earnestly to protect the country from another 9/11 type attack.  It’s  psychologically and professionally difficult to dismiss their insistence that they’re not committing torture as simply untrue.  Simultaneously, it’s easy to believe that waterboarding done under the auspices of a despotic regime for the sole purpose of maintaining tyranny is something inherently different and thus worthy of a different name.

Does this amount to “servitude” to the government and “cowardice”?   Maybe.  But I think it’s more complicated than that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    One of the most important reasons to draw a bright clean line around things like “torture” is that societies become inured and adjust to new moralities over time. It was important to draw the line at “torture” (including waterboarding) because once that line is crossed the drift could continue. What else, then, was not torture?

    So I don’t see this as the press changing, I see it as society changing.

    (And yes the legal implications of “torture” perversely seemed to protect “waterboarders” as they claimed innocence.)

  2. john personna says:

    (To the extent that we have accepted waterboarding, we have declined as a society.)

  3. Franklin says:

    KSM was a Very Bad Man who did Unspeakably Horrible Things.

    and he could potentially reveal information that might save American lives. Or so the argument went, and that’s where the real debate was.

    The honest apologists admitted the obvious: waterboarding is torture. That the media couldn’t state the obvious is a bit sad.

    You’ve covered the reasons for it well enough; it’s likely a combination of those reasons. I tend to agree that the desire to be ‘neutral’ probably was the prominent one.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    Still wondering why a Democratic Congress and Democratic President can’t or won’t pass a law expressly listing waterboarding as torture. I assume that it must only be torture under certain circumstances.

  5. john personna says:

    Didn’t they ban the practice PD?

    If so, if I’m recalling correctly, then they are being polite and covering the ass of the previous administration, with respect to torture as a crime.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    JP: Obama signed an executive order, which is not the same thing. Obama could lift that order tomorrow. Heck, he could order someone to ignore his order.

    The dirty little secret that the Left used to know is that America’s “torture” laws were intended to be ambiguous, i.e. capable of multiple interpretations, in order to allow the U.S. to have the benefits of condemning other nations, while retaining the necessary strategic ambiguity to utilize interrogation techniques that cause severe mental anguish.

  7. john personna says:

    Isn’t that like saying I could rob a bank tomorrow, so I am a bank robber today?

  8. john personna says:

    The dirty little secret that the Left used to know is that America’s “torture” laws were intended to be ambiguous, i.e. capable of multiple interpretations, in order to allow the U.S. to have the benefits of condemning other nations, while retaining the necessary strategic ambiguity to utilize interrogation techniques that cause severe mental anguish.

    BTW, my position has always been that torture should be illegal, with the understanding that our secret services will break that law, and accept the consequences when necessary.

    I mean, if waterboarding were illegal, and you or I were in that hypothetical situation where a suitcase nuke is in our city … wouldn’t we break that law, and then hold our heads up high in court? Of course.

    The flaw in making waterboarding _legal_ is that it has no such high bar. It becomes a day-to-day tool.

  9. James Joyner says:

    The flaw in making waterboarding _legal_ is that it has no such high bar. It becomes a day-to-day tool.

    Agreed in principle although, as it turns out, it didn’t actually happen. The actual use of waterboarding was limited to a tiny handful of cases and quickly ended for political and practical reasons. But the precedent does make it’s use in less pressing cases more likely, which does lead to a slippery slope.

  10. Steve Plunk says:

    They could pass a law now without consideration of what went on before. Laws cannot be ex post facto. They’re not covering for anybody but rather keeping their options open in case they need to do it. If the time comes they will do it.

  11. mantis says:

    You make very good points about the complexity here, especially when pointing out that newspapers are hesitant to declare someone has committed a crime, which they would be doing if they definitively labelled the interrogation techniques we know were used as torture.

    However, the idea that newspapers shouldn’t have called it torture because the public supported it when used against KSM (and other known bad guys) is just silly. Put simply, the public supports torturing terrorists. It’s torturing unknowns (or innocents) that gives people pause.

    It’s the same thing with the death penalty. The majority supports putting mass murderers and such to death. They don’t like it so much when the inmate could possibly be innocent. Newspapers shouldn’t be calling it “enhanced correctional techniques” rather than the death penalty because of this.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    The executive order basically says that agents of the U.S. government should follow the US Army Field Manual when conducting interrogations, unless permission is obtained from the Attorney General for something different, and the legal opinions of the previous administration should not be relied upon.


    So, I probably overstated the notion that waterboarding was outlawed by executive order.

  13. narciso says:

    So, a series of references repeated by gullible and sometimes malicious sources. Media Matters really, are a proof of anything, The idea is to elude distinctions in a whole series of
    cases, the same thing that Sowell was being castigated for

  14. john personna says:

    Wouldn’t any new law declaring waterboarding to be torture strengthen international claims against the Bush government?

    Sure, ex. post changes wouldn’t change the US picture, but I think the CYA (or CHA) is about the international picture, US agreements with respect to torture, etc.

  15. PD Shaw says:

    JP: When the U.S. ratified the Convention Against Torture, it attached a number of reservations to its ratification, which were intended, and were seen as intending, to minimize U.S. responsibility under the treaty. The U.S. reservations grafted a “specific intent” requirement on to the definition of “torture,” and narrowed the kinds of mental harms that constitute torture. Amnesty International complained at the time that the purpose of these reservations was to gut the impact of the treaty on the U.S. and permit and perhaps even encourage psychological torture.

    So, no, I don’t think international sanction is a reasonable outcome, unless the international community is going to ignore the reservations and limitations the U.S. put on it’s treaty obligations.

  16. tom p says:

    ***Does this amount to “servitude” to the government and “cowardice”? Maybe. But I think it’s more complicated than that.***

    If it is so complicated James, why is it so easy for you to state the obvious?

    ***Further, let me stipulate that I’ve been on the record repeatedly stating that waterboarding is torture.***

    You really give them way too much credit (and are way too nice) KSM was waterboarded 183 times. At what point did the CIA come to the realization that it was not working? 10? 25? 50? And started doing it just for the hell of it?

  17. Paul L. says:

    The “study” disingenuously uses words that describe methods of torture using water as being the same as waterboarding.

    Quoting footnote 1
    “Before 2004, “waterboarding” had been referred to variously as “water torture,” the “water cure,” the “water treatment,” el submarino (or the wet submarine), dunking, and forced ingestion, among other terms.”

  18. PD Shaw says:

    Interestingly, Holder apparently agrees with Yoo’s interpretation of how “torture” is defined in the Convention Against Torture. He’s using the Yoo analysis to block amnesty requests from people complaining that they will be tortured if returned to their homeland. He did it in Cherichel v. Holder, 8th Circuit 2010:


    While the Bush Administration backed away from the Yoo analysis in 2004, it had already become accepted by the immigration agencies and courts by then.

    I conclude from this that waterboarding is not torture under U.S. law or treaty obligations.

  19. James Joyner says:

    You really give them way too much credit (and are way too nice) KSM was waterboarded 183 times. At what point did the CIA come to the realization that it was not working? 10? 25? 50? And started doing it just for the hell of it?

    Here’s why it’s so complicated: As repugnant as that was, as noted at the link, torture actually worked in KSM’s case. He gave us tons of useful intelligence after he cracked.

    Was it “worth it”? Even aside from the moral and legal issues, I think there’s reason to believe that the backlash from torture is self-defeating from a security perspective. But it’s not a pure slam dunk.