05/16/2011 03:57 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2011

Arthur Brisbane, NYT Public Editor, Calls For New Editorial Policy Governing The Use Of The Word 'Torture'

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane deserves a lot of credit today for his piece "The Other Torture Debate", in which he notes the mealy-mouthed way his own paper has treated the issue over the years and makes a very worthy suggestion regarding a future editorial path.

With the death of Osama bin Laden providing a new context for the discussion, Brisbane very quickly drills down on the way in which the Times has something of a double standard for when the word "torture" can be used, and when it must give way to trendy euphemism:

The Times published a strong editorial headlined "The Torture Apologists," which argued that while there is no "final answer" to whether information gleaned through torture was instrumental, there could be no justification for using such "immoral and illegal" tactics.

In the news columns, an article by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage began with the question: "Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?" In print, the story was headlined, "Harsh Methods of Questioning Debated Again." Online, the headline was quite different and used the "T" word: "Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture."

And with that, another -- admittedly smaller -- controversy was revived as well: this one concerning how The Times refers to the interrogation methods that were adopted by the Bush administration after 9/11.

The last time this controversy flared, it was in the wake of a study conducted by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, which found that America's major newspapers (the study examined the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today along with the New York Times) had abruptly stopped referring to waterboarding as torture in 2004, as its deployment in the "War on Terror" became a part of the public discussion.

The same study found that newspapers were "much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator." In the New York Times' case, the study found that "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."

Adam Serwer nailed the shift pretty perfectly: "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."

HuffPost's Michael Calderone, then writing for Yahoo News, obtained a statement from a New York Times spokesperson, who claimed that the study's findings were "misleading." From there, however, the Times' spokesperson basically confirmed Serwer's hypothesis, and made mention of a curious editorial rule governing the use of the word "torture":

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."

As Brisbane makes clear in his piece today, he's both fully fluent in what the Shorenstein Center's study revealed and his paper's specific "one rule for the news, another rule for the opinion pages" policy. With command of the issue well in hand, he makes an excellent suggestion about how to find a "path out of this wilderness."

The Times should use the term "torture" more directly, using it on first reference when the discussion is about -- and there's no other word for it -- torture. The debate was never whether Bin Laden was found because of brutal interrogations: it was whether he was found because of torture. More narrowly, the word is appropriate when describing techniques traditionally considered torture, waterboarding being the obvious example. Reasonable fairness can be achieved by adding caveats that acknowledge the Bush camp's view of its narrow legal definition.

I think that following Brisbane's advice would be an important editorial policy change that would in no way inhibit the paper's objectivity. It makes sense: as the Harvard study demonstrates, terms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" were not invented by journalists. Rather, journalists assented to the use of such terms because one side of "the torture debate" insisting on using them. It's fair to recognize this, but wherever possible, those euphemisms should be attributed to the people who deploy them -- the aforementioned "Torture Apologists." That way, if there must be a "mincing" of words, the mincing never comes in the voice of New York Times reporters.

Arthur Brisbane, good on you!

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