Covering Torture: The Press, Waterboarding, and the Bush Legacy

A new study from Harvard looks at how the American media covered waterboarding. Raymond Bonner on how reporters became allies of law enforcement—instead of the skeptics they’re supposed to be.

AP Photo

Pundits have spewed forth tens of thousands of words flaying journalists for failing to have been tough enough on government officials in the run-up to the Iraq War. But how about more broadly, the War on Terror? How have we done on that? Have we aided and abetted the terrorists, as many on the political right are convinced? Or have we made it easier for governments to infringe on civil liberties, as the left argues?

A recent study on how the American media has reported "waterboarding" offers some insight. Is waterboarding "torture?" It would seem to be a simple yes-or-no question. The answer turns out, however, to depend on when the question was asked, and who was doing the waterboarding, according to the study, by students at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. (" Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media")

In launching the "war on terror," President Bush famously declared, "you're either with us or against us." The Harvard report suggests that many journalists thought that applied to them, as well.

For nearly 70 years prior to 9/11, "major newspapers consistently classified waterboarding as torture," the report says. The study examines the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the United States: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Then, in 2004, in the aftermath of revelations that the Bush administration was engaged in waterboarding of terrorist suspects, there was a "sudden significant shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding." The four newspapers "almost never referred to waterboarding as torture." (In only two of 143 articles at The New York Times, three of 63 at The Los Angeles Times, and one of 63 at the Wall Street Journal.)

"Somewhat misleading and tendentious," the New York Times executive editor, Bill Keller, said about the study. To explicitly describe waterboarding as "torture" would be tantamount to "taking sides in a political dispute," the paper said.

The study has touched off a heated discussion among journalists, which should be broadened to include an examination of post 9/11 coverage more generally.

During the Cold War, journalists and politicians, seemed to find a communist under every bed. After 9/11, Al Qaeda operatives were ubiquitous. While writing this, I typed "linked to Al Qaeda" into a Google search. There were 6,740,000 hits, including 218 news stories on that day alone. Journalists used the phrase to propel their stories onto the front page; it also played into the fears and paranoia governments used to justify waterboarding and other erosions on civil liberties.

When I was in Southeast Asia for The New York Times, from 2002 until 2006, stories about Abu Sayyaf routinely asserted that it was "linked to Al Qaeda." Yes, at one time in the early 1990s, Osama bin Laden may have given money to the Philippine organization, but after 9/11, it degenerated into a lawless gang of bandits that kidnapped and murdered for money, without any deep ideological commitment.

What then does "linked to Al Qaeda" mean? That the "linked" group's leaders pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, that some members had been trained at Al Qaeda camps, or that the members share a hatred of the United States and Jews?

The anecdotal evidence abounds: Far from being the fierce attackers of government as they are often perceived to be, many journalists after 9/11 became accomplices, wittingly or otherwise, with the politicians. In his book, "Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice," a New York Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau, tells how in 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft, in testimony to a congressional committee, said that a mosque in Brooklyn was sending money to Al Qaeda. Licthblau wrote a story that ran on the front page. The story was wrong, Lichtblau acknowledges in his book.

“We in the media were no doubt swept up in that same national mood of fear and outrage,” Lichtblau writes, with refreshing candor.

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In Britain perhaps the most glaring example of journalists being too willing to accept what law enforcement officials say in terrorism cases was the arrest of the pilot Lotfi Raissi a few weeks after 9/11. The FBI and British authorities alleged that Raissi had trained some of the 9/11 pilots. The evidence seemed compelling—pages missing from his flight log—and few journalists expressed skepticism (here, I must ashamedly plead guilty). As we subsequently learned, the pages were "missing" due to the negligence of Scotland Yard, and Raissi was completely exonerated.

In launching the "war on terror," President Bush famously declared, "you're either with us or against us." The Harvard report suggests that many journalists thought that applied to them, as well. The reporting on waterboarding since 2004 "can hardly be termed neutral," the study says in its last sentence.

Raymond Bonner has been an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and has written for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He now lives in Britain.