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New York Times ‘On wrong side of Orwell’

By Jay Rosen | Press Think | August 10, 2014

These are my discussions notes to The Executive Editor on the Word ‘Torture.’ A letter to Times readers from Dean Baquet, August 7, 2014.

“It’s time to celebrate that the newspaper of record is no longer covering for war criminals.” That’s what Andrew Sullivan, who has kept watch on this story, wrote Thursday. The news he was celebrating: the New York Times gave up the ghost on euphemisms for torture.

Alright, we celebrated. For an hour, maybe. Now let’s ask what came to an end with this strange announcement. Terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “harsh tactics” and “brutal treatment” had been preferred usage at the Times in news stories by its own staff about the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody after 9/11. “Torture” was removed as a descriptor that the Times itself would employ. The decision to reverse that came Thursday in a brief note to readers from executive editor Dean Baquet.

From now on, The Times will use the word “torture” to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.

1. As Erik Wemple wrote, Baquet here “pledges that the newspaper will deploy the English language to describe things.” His paraphrase points up the strangest part for me: the Times felt it had to exit from the vernacular to stay on the responsible journalism track. This I find hard to accept.

The baseline in daily journalism is supposed to be plain English, spoken and written well. Non-exclusive language is the norm. The normal market is the common reader and the reader’s common sense, not a specialized class of knowers vibrating in the power circle. It’s not incumbent on an already understood term like torture to prove itself neutral enough for newswriters, but on the specialist’s construction (“enhanced interrogation”)  to prove itself relevant in these proceedings at all.

A term like “enhanced interrogation techniques” starts with zero currency, extreme bloodlessness and dubious origins. A lot to overcome. In the years when the Times could not pick between it and torture — 2002 to 2014, approximately —  it seemed that its editors and reporters were trying to re-clarify what had been made more opaque by their own avoid-the-label policy decision. Thus the appearance of do we have to spell it out for you? phrases like “brutal interrogation methods,” meant to signal:  this was really, really bad. So bad you might think it amounts to…

Baquet tries to explain:

The word “torture” had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.

So for the fruits of avoiding a label the Times becomes a force for fuzzing things up. Early in a public reckoning with acts of state torture it decides it cannot call it that. Wrong side of your Orwell there, mister editor. To report what happened you have to first commit to calling things by their right names. Somewhere in a fog it helped to create the Times lost sight of that. The editor’s note doesn’t explain how it happened. … Full article

August 10, 2014 - Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Subjugation - Torture | ,

6 Comments »

  1. This I’m sure fits;
    “We have a right to think, that truth with a capital letter is relative. But facts are facts. And whoever says that the sky is blue when it is grey is prostituting words and preparing the way for tyranny.” — Albert Camus

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    Comment by HJL | August 10, 2014 | Reply

  2. how about rehabilitating the word “prisoner” for “detainee”, another orwellian construct.

    the nyt is known as the “newspaper of record” and it lives up to the name by being the propaganda mouthpiece of the evil empire.

    there used to be a great little zine called “the lies of out times” for which chomsky wrote regularly – unfortunately, i can’t find an archive.

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    Comment by ernie yacub | August 10, 2014 | Reply

  3. To me, the NYT became a paper of ill repute a long time ago. It’s journalists use a vocabulary that is outside of the standard meaning of words. Its articles are just too exhausting to decipher truth. I leave it alone.

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    Comment by Ribeekah | August 10, 2014 | Reply

    • NYT presents long articles that retain the most pertinent information for the last third of the article, but not in the last paragraph. If the important details are part of the close you remember them, so they always wind the piece off into some inane direction allowing the reader to have absorbed the news without getting it. And that’s if they have time for all that reading.

      But the NYT can usually point out that they indeed reported the facts. However with the emphasis so skewed they can be fairly assured that their readership walks away with the wrong understanding.

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      Comment by aletho | August 11, 2014 | Reply

  4. Reblogged this on GUNNY G: "THE PEOPLE WHO CAST THE VOTES DECIDE NOTHING…".

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    Comment by Gunny G | August 11, 2014 | Reply

  5. Reblogged this on A Conservative Christian Man.

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    Comment by Paul H. Lemmen | August 11, 2014 | Reply


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