NYT Fires Back Over Harvard Newspaper-Waterboarding Study

The New York Times says that a Harvard study on newspapers’ characterization of waterboarding is “misleading,” and that its op-ed pages have often featured writers who classify waterboarding as torture.

The study, “Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media,” contends that the Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in 82% (44 of 54) of its articles before 2004. After the post-9/11 debate about waterboarding began, however, the percentage dropped to 1.4% (2 of 143). It observes similar statistical dropoffs in The Los Angeles Times, but not in USA Today, only because the paper “never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.”

The findings regarding the Times are not entirely fair, a spokesman for the Gray Lady told Yahoo! News:

A spokesman told Yahoo! News that the paper “has written so much about the waterboarding issue that we believe the Kennedy School study is misleading.”

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.”

Plus, said the Times, writers for the op-ed pages regularly voiced the opinion that waterboarding is torture. In an email to Yahoo!, Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic — who played a key role in publicizing the Harvard study — responded to the Times‘ defense:

In any dispute, their view is not: What is true? But: How can we preserve our access to the political right and not lose pro-torture readers? If you want a locus classicus for why the legacy media has collapsed, look no further.

In reporting the story, Yahoo! News’ Michael Calderone says that the Times “created a factual contradiction between its newer work and its own archives.”