New York Times Not Quite Sure What Torture IsS

From the 1930s until the 2000s, waterboarding was described as "torture" by The New York Times 81.5 percent of the time. But during the 2000s, it was described as "torture" only 1.4 per cent of the time. Wonder what happened!

The New York Times wasn't the only paper that saw this change—USA Today, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal called waterboarding "torture" only four times in more than 100 articles (USA Today didn't call it "torture" at all) between 2002 and 2008, according to a new study (PDF from Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy—the first comprehensive study of the use of the term.

Isn't that weird?! Did they all get new style guides at the same time or something? Huh, and this is odd too: The papers mostly only called waterboarding "torture" when a non-American entity does it:

In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.

What a funny journalistic mystery! Why do you think all these newspapers were so inconsistent in how they described the act of pouring water on the face of an immobilized prisoner to effect the sensation of drowning? Do you think it was maybe because the United States government explicitly authorized the use of it on prisoners? Just guessing!

Update: The Times has emailed us their position on the use of the word "torture":

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. 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. In our editorials, and our columnists too, regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture. So that's what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.

Indeed, The New York Times has written so much about the waterboarding issue that we believe the Kennedy School study is misleading.

Convincing? I'll let you decide for yourself!

[Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media (PDF) via Daily Dish; pic, of an art installation, via Getty]