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The Media Is Still Dancing Around The Word 'Torture'

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In recent weeks, the controversy surrounding the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA interrogations during the Bush administration has been a major media story. From Sen. Dianne Feinstein's dramatic allegation that the CIA had spied on Senate aides as they prepared the report, to the leaking of most of the study's major findings, journalists have had no shortage of new material to sift through.

What's not new is the media's persistent dance around the word at the heart of the entire story: "torture."

Much has been made in the past decade or so about the news business' sudden conversion to euphemism when it came to describing techniques that had been previously universally recognized as torture. One study, for instance, found that major outlets abruptly stopped defining waterboarding as torture when the Bush administration began using it.

That tendency has not abated in recent years, and a look through recent newspaper and television coverage shows that many outlets are still hesitant to use "torture."

McClatchy, which published the leaked findings from the Senate report, called them "harsh interrogation techniques," even as it provided a gruesome description of what those techniques were:

The techniques included waterboarding, which produces a sensation of drowning, stress positions, sleep deprivation for up to 11 days at a time, confinement in a cramped box, slaps and slamming detainees into walls. The CIA held detainees in secret “black site” prisons overseas and abducted others who it turned over to foreign governments for interrogation.

The Washington Post referred to "brutal," "harsh" and "excruciating" techniques.

A New York Times article mentioned "brutal methods."

Reuters wrote about "brutal interrogation methods that critics say amount to torture."

The Associated Press actually described the report in one article as a "torture report," though it later used the term "enhanced interrogation techniques" in quotes.

An examination of monitoring service TV Eyes over the last couple of weeks shows that television news is—with some exceptions—equally reluctant to use "torture."

In one discussion of the report, MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski referred to "interrogation tactics used by the CIA."

"CBS This Morning" used the term "extreme interrogation techniques."

NBC's David Gregory asked Obama administration adviser Dan Pfeiffer about "past interrogation techniques."

On CNN, Candy Crowley hedged her bets by saying that the CIA had used "torture depending on who's describing it."

One network where "torture" seems more acceptable is, surprisingly, Fox News. Viewers tuning into that channel could hear Shep Smith say that the term "enhanced interrogation techniques" "means torture in English." They could watch anchor Shannon Bream read news copy that said that the Senate had concluded that the CIA "tortured suspects and gained little evidence."

And, perhaps more cavalierly, they could witness Bill O'Reilly refer to the techniques as "torture, alleged torture, torture, whatever."