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Context of 'April 25, 2009: New York Times Uses Term ‘Brutal,’ Refuses to Use ‘Torture’ in Reporting'

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Jill Abramson (left) testifies under questioning by defense counsel William Jeffress, as lawyers look on.Jill Abramson (left) testifies under questioning by defense counsel William Jeffress, as lawyers look on. [Source: Art Lien / Court Artist (.com)]New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson testifies for the defense in the Lewis Libby perjury and obstruction trial. Abramson, who served as one of former Times reporter Judith Miller’s supervisors, says that she cannot confirm elements of Miller’s testimony (see January 30-31, 2007 and January 31, 2007). Miller told the court that after speaking with Libby (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, and Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003) , she went to Abramson and suggested that the Times look into the question of whether Valerie Plame Wilson sent her husband, Joseph Wilson, on a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, October 17, 2003, and July 20, 2005). Defense attorney William Jeffress asks, “Did Judith Miller come to you to recommend the New York Times pursue a story about whether Ambassador Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA?” Abramson replies, “I have no recollection of such a conversation.” [Associated Press, 2/13/2007; Marcy Wheeler, 2/13/2007] Abramson, who testifies for less than five minutes, says, “It’s possible I occasionally tuned her out,” and reiterates she has no memory of speaking to Miller about Plame Wilson. [New York Times, 2/13/2007]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Jill Abramson, Joseph C. Wilson, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Valerie Plame Wilson, William Jeffress, Judith Miller

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Former Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet says his newspaper did not bow to government pressure in choosing not to run a story about allegations by AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009, December 15-31, 2005, and February 11, 2006 and After). In an ABC News report on Klein’s allegations of AT&T’s complicity with the National Security Agency (NSA) to illegally conduct warrantless electronic surveillance against American citizens, Klein says that the Times bowed to government pressure from the then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and the then-Director of the NSA Michael Hayden. Baquet, now the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, says that while he spoke to both Negroponte and Hayden about the story, “government pressure played no role in my decision not to run the story.” Instead, Baquet says he and managing editor Doug Frantz decided “we did not have a story, that we could not figure out what was going on” based on Klein’s highly technical documents. Baquet says Times reporter Joseph Menn disagreed with his decision, “and was very disappointed.” Klein’s story was published in the New York Times in April 2006 (see April 7, 2006 and April 12, 2006). [ABC News, 3/26/2007] Klein will later write that Baquet’s explanation is an “absurd and flimsy excuse,” and will say it is obvious that the Los Angeles Times “capitulated to government pressure.” [Klein, 2009, pp. 62]

Entity Tags: Joseph Menn, Dean Baquet, AT&T, Douglas Frantz, John Negroponte, Mark Klein, National Security Agency, Michael Hayden, Los Angeles Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

New York Times editor Clark Hoyt, in a column entitled “Telling the Brutal Truth,” writes of the lengthy discussions among Times editors and staffers on using the term “torture” in their reports and editorials. Hoyt writes that the term is not used in news reports, though it is in editorials. “Until this month,” he writes, “what the Bush administration called ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques were ‘harsh’ techniques in the news pages of the Times. Increasingly, they are ‘brutal.’” He characterizes the decision to use, or not use, the word “torture” as an example of “the linguistic minefields that journalists navigate every day in the quest to describe the world accurately and fairly.” He notes that the final decision—to rely on the adjective “brutal”—“displeas[es] some who think ‘brutal’ is just a timid euphemism for torture [as well as] their opponents who think ‘brutal’ is too loaded.”
Reader Criticism - Hoyt notes that some readers have criticized the Times for its lack of “backbone” in not using the term “torture” in its reporting, with one writing that by refusing to use the term, “you perpetuate the fantasy that calling a thing by something other than its name will change the thing itself.” Others say that even using the word “brutal” is “outrageously biased.”
'Harsh' Not Accurately Descriptive - Hoyt notes that in the process of editing an April 10 news report on the CIA’s closing of its network of secret overseas prisons (see April 10, 2009), reporter Scott Shane and editor Douglas Jehl debated over the wording of the first paragraph. Jehl had written that the interrogation methods used in the prisons were “widely denounced as illegal torture,” a phrase Jehl changed to “harshest interrogation methods.” Shane argued that the term “harshest” was not strong enough, and the two agreed to use the word “brutal.” After reading the recently released Justice Department torture memos (see April 16, 2009), managing editor Jill Abramson said a new and stronger term needed to be used. “Harsh sounded like the way I talked to my kids when they were teenagers and told them I was going to take the car keys away,” she says. She, too, came down in favor of “brutal” after conferring with legal experts and Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet. But senior editors have all agreed that the word torture will not be used except in quoting others’ descriptions of the methods. “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques,” Jehl says. “Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” [New York Times, 4/25/2009]
Accusation of Bias, Semantic Games - Media critic Brad Jacobson accuses Hoyt and the Times staff of engaging in meaningless semantic wordplay instead of labeling torture as what it is, and notes that Hoyt seems to admit that public opinion, not journalistic standards, has determined what terms the Times will and will not use. Jacobson writes: “1) If the Times called techniques such as waterboarding torture in its reporting, which it should based on US and international law, legal experts, historians, military judges, combat veterans, and human rights organizations, and described, however briefly, what that torture entailed, then the use of modifying adjectives such as ‘harsh’ or ‘brutal’ would not only be superfluous but, in a news story, better left out; and 2) isn’t the Times (along with any news outlet that has failed to report these acts as torture) directly responsible in some way for inspiring the kind of response it received from readers [who objected to the term ‘brutal’]? If readers are not provided the facts—a) waterboarding is torture and b) torture is illegal—while Times editors are simultaneously ascribing arbitrary descriptors to it like ‘brutal’ or ‘harsh,’ then the Times is not only denying its readers the necessary information to understand the issue but this denial may also lead directly to accusations of bias.” He also notes that Jehl censored Shane’s story to eliminate the reference to the methods being “widely denounced as illegal torture,” and asks why Abramson discussed the matter with legal experts rather than determining if waterboarding, physical assaults, and other techniques do indeed qualify as torture under the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994), and other binding laws and treaties. [Raw Story, 4/26/2009]

Entity Tags: Douglas Jehl, Central Intelligence Agency, Brad Jacobson, Clark Hoyt, Dean Baquet, Scott Shane, Convention Against Torture, Jill Abramson, Geneva Conventions, US Department of Justice, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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