‘Torture’ Diction Debate Draws In NYT‘s Keller

Following up on the controversy surrounding a Harvard study that showed a dropoff in classification of waterboarding as torture at The New York Times and other outlets, the NYTPicker blog has taken a look at the work of executive editor Bill Keller during his days as a reporter for the Times. In his Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Soviet Union, Keller used the word “torture” to describe the country’s interrogation techniques. And, the ‘picker says, “His stories never alluded to any questioning of the term by the governments that used the techniques.”
The study basically tried to count the number of times U.S. media outlets directly or indirectly referred to waterboarding as torture both before and after it was revealed that the U.S. government was deploying the practice. In recent weeks, media pundits have pointed to the study in questioning whether papers like the Times had failed to condemn waterboarding as illegal and immoral.
In the Times‘ own coverage of the Harvard study, media reporter Brian Stelter (who used to work for mediabistro.com’s TVNewser) quoted Keller: “I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.”

Keller goes on to defend the Times: “Nobody reading the Times’s coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”
The Times has argued that because government officials said that waterboarding was not torture, its refusal to name it as such was an effort at remaining objective in a political dispute. The NYTPicker, meanwhile, says that as a reporter, Keller had fewer qualms when writing about foreign governments’ interrogation practices.

In his own foreign reporting, Keller didn’t bother to clutter his stories with the obvious — and irrelevant — denials by Soviet and South African government officials that they were engaged in torture. He used his own judgement to recognize torture for what it was.

NYT standards editor Phil Corbett, meanwhile, said that the paper does not have a hard-and-fast rule about the proper deployment of “torture” in its pages: “In general, when writing about disputed, contentious and politically loaded topics, we try to be precise, accurate and as neutral as possible; factual descriptions are often better than shorthand labels.”