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Updated: July 13, 2010 04:14 IST

U.S. media independence: the rot within

Narayan Lakshman
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In this file photo protestors demonstrate the use of waterboarding in front of the Justice Department in Washington. “Torture at Times: A Study of Waterboarding in the Media”, authored by students of Harvard University does not show up the U.S. print media in a good light in terms of its degree of freedom and independence of the government.
AP In this file photo protestors demonstrate the use of waterboarding in front of the Justice Department in Washington. “Torture at Times: A Study of Waterboarding in the Media”, authored by students of Harvard University does not show up the U.S. print media in a good light in terms of its degree of freedom and independence of the government.

The findings of a study on media freedom in the U.S. do not show up its print media in a good light in terms of its degree of freedom and independence of the government.

When a country engages in self-aggrandising talk of being the world's oldest and freest democracy, at the very least one would expect it to be home to a free press. When that country also regularly berates other nations across the world for stifling media freedom, it would be expected to have a government that tolerates criticism from its own media. And when that country unabashedly uses “lack of media freedom” as a tool in its policy arsenal for promoting regime change abroad, then it would be hypocritical for it to have a subservient, self-censoring media on its soil.

And yet, according to a recent, empirically rigorous study of media freedom in the United States, none of these conditions applied to the country. Torture at Times: A Study of Waterboarding in the Media, authored by students of Harvard University, takes a close and statistically uncompromising look at the degree of media freedom in the U.S. The papers studied were The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

Its findings do not, to put it mildly, show up the U.S. print media in a good light in terms of its degree of freedom and independence of the government.

By examining how the torture technique of waterboarding was described in news reporting and opinion columns of four most widely read newspapers, the study focussed on the sudden change in those descriptions during the early 2000s. That the first decade of the 21st century was also the time when the Central Intelligence Agency was charged with engaging in waterboarding was no coincidence, a point that this insightful study makes early on.

In particular, the authors found that, “From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture.” By contrast, they explained, “from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture.”

Before delving into the detail, let's get the facts straight — waterboarding is torture by most reasonable standards, even if Karl Rove, adviser to the former President, George W. Bush, disagrees. More specifically it is, as Torture at Times explains, the practice of intentionally inducing the sensation of drowning in the victim, usually in the context of interrogation, and invariably producing an intense sense of panic and fear of death.

In the past, this sensation has been achieved by placing a cloth or plastic wrap on the face of the victim and pouring water over it; by pouring water directly into the mouth and nose; by placing a stick between the victim's teeth and pouring water into his or her mouth, often until the victim's stomach becomes distended, then forcing the water back out of the mouth; or by dunking and holding the victim's head under water.

That waterboarding is torture rather than merely a “coercive interrogation technique” (as famously described by Mr. Rove) was best conveyed by none other than the U.S. print medium itself — prior to 2002, of course. As the Harvard study notes, The New York Times characterised it thus in 81.5 per cent of the articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times, in 96.3 per cent of the articles during the earlier period.

And it was not just the four newspapers studied that were unambiguous in their view of waterboarding. Waterboarding featured regularly in the news throughout the 20th century, the Torture at Times authors say, “from the Philippine insurgency to World War II to the Vietnam War.” They added that in addressing waterboarding for more than 70 years prior to 9/11, major newspapers and even American law consistently categorised the practice as torture.

However, in a sharp indictment of the U.S. media, the results of the study showed that since waterboarding began receiving significant media attention in 2004, after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and other revelations of waterboarding by the U.S. (including allegedly in secret CIA prisons overseas and in Guantanamo Bay), media sources appeared to have changed their characterisation of the practice.

The New York Times described waterboarding as torture or implied it was torture in 1.4 per cent of articles after 2002. The Los Angeles Times did so in a mere 4.8 per cent of articles, the study found. The Wall Street Journal called it torture in 1.6 per cent of its stories and, worst of all, the USA Today “never” wrote of waterboarding as torture or even implied it was torture.

Does this show up the U.S. media as slavish to the diktats of the government? There is an even more egregious tendency discovered by the Harvard study: the newspapers analysed were far more likely to describe waterboarding as torture “if a country other than the U.S. is the perpetrator.”

The evidence is clear: in The New York Times, 85.8 per cent of the articles that dealt with a country other than the U.S. called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture, while only 7.69 per cent did so when the U.S. was responsible. Similarly The Los Angeles Times characterised the practice as torture in 91.3 per cent of its articles when another country was charged with waterboarding, but in only 11.4 per cent of articles when the U.S. was the perpetrator.

As media commentator Glenn Greenwald observed: “We do not need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task … once the U.S. government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, U.S. media outlets dutifully cease using the term. That compliant behaviour makes overtly state-controlled media unnecessary.”

And among all U.S. media, it would appear that those operating within the Washington beltway — in dangerous metaphorical proximity to government — were most culpable. Following the recent McChrystal-gate scoop for Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine, Politico, a hardcore Washington insider, wrote that “Hastings had pulled off his … coup because he was a freelance journalist rather than a beat reporter, and so could risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal's remarks.”

Similarly Frank Rich of The New York Times admitted in his column: “It's the Hastings-esque outsiders with no fear of burning bridges who have often uncovered the epochal stories missed by those with high-level access.” Notably, Mr. Rich added, Woodward and Bernstein were young local reporters, nowhere near the White House beat, when they cracked Watergate; and “it was uncelebrated reporters in Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, not journalistic stars courted by Scooter and Wolfowitz, who mined low-level agency hands to challenge the… W.M.D. intelligence in the run-up to Iraq.”

What is even more telling — and ironic — is that little protest has followed Defence Secretary Robert Gates' decision, in the aftermath of the McChrystal fiasco, to clamp down heavily on any further media access to army personnel.

If there is one thing that this accumulating evidence suggests, it is that a rot has afflicted the U.S. print media — the rot of complacency born of an institutional intimacy that is antithetical to the very core principles of a free press. However given how deeply entrenched the media-government relationship is already, this may not be a rot that can be stemmed.

In that case it is the American people who stand to lose most of all, as their government increasingly obfuscates its way out of serious blunders committed, and a pliant press happily amplifies propagandistic messages.

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All democratic governments for that matter try to maintain a good image at the world stage. That is exactly what the Bush administration tried to do with the concept of "water-boarding". Agreed that there is a lot of word-play politics involved, but then that is the case with U.S. politics, it is what is required for the sake of getting approval from its citizens. The fact that Mr Lakshman and other journalists like him can even discuss "water-boarding" as torture without being harmed in any way proves that there is significant freedom of press as compared to that in India. Coming to my point, there is comparatively NO freedom of press in India. Just look at what the Sangh parivar did to the news office that reported parivar's purported plan to terrorize Muslims. The kind of response for such an incident, both from the government and the news-media community, was appalling. None of our "ex-spurts" who opine on important issues made their opinion known on this incident.There should have been an outrage but instead was front page news for a day and then immediately forgotten .

from:  Sean
Posted on: Jul 21, 2010 at 04:54 IST

The scope of this article is limited to the major newspapers in US, and it's true with regard to WSJ, NYTimes etc. But, US media also includes several more smaller newspapers that does publish and highlight such issues.

from:  Xavier Abraham
Posted on: Jul 15, 2010 at 01:33 IST

Every year US publishes black list of countries for not giving media freedom and worst humanitarian conditions , will it this time put its own name in that list?

from:  nilesh salpe
Posted on: Jul 14, 2010 at 20:56 IST

Author has made his point beautifully. I have never read an article on the freedom of press in US. I always had a notion that the country which claims to have most liberal and democratic economies of the world must be having a free press.
Author has gracefully pointed a finger at the US by stating that when waterboarding practice is followed by world, it's a torture but if US is the perpetrator then it's altogether different.

from:  Kunal Singla
Posted on: Jul 14, 2010 at 18:17 IST

Worry about the cesspool that the Indian media is rather than worrying about the US.

from:  Anil Kotwal
Posted on: Jul 14, 2010 at 17:57 IST

The media in the United States is the freest, most reliable sources of information available in the free world. Would you rather get your news from Pravda? Or the Chinese media? Or perhaps Iran's? Or how about the rags of North Korea?

This is not to say that it does not have its faults. With skillful operators who know how to 'spin' stories for best effect and how to trade access for story influence, journalists can be manipulated. However, in a truly free country, such bias is called out and corrected. That's how the system works - and here we see the system working.

Let's not waste our time with reflexive anti-Americanism or the cynical formulations that originate in the old Soviet formulations. It's time to move on.

from:  Tony
Posted on: Jul 14, 2010 at 12:41 IST

In his editorial piece "U.S. media independence: the rot within," published on July 13, 2010, author Narayan Lakshman attempts to paint a picture of a U.S. media that is sacrificing free speech in order to blindly support the government in its endeavors. The majority of his argument is centered on one topic: waterboarding. First of all, it is of questionable legitimacy, and quite frankly, somewhat ludicrous to claim a dearth of free press on the basis of one topic's coverage. Swallowing for the moment, the assumption that the coverage of waterboarding is representative of the world's third most populous country's press system, glitches remain in the argument.
The general argument made in this article claims that since the Bush administration approved the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique, the American media has followed suit and stopped referring to the practice as "torture." Mr. Lakshman makes no note in his editorial piece however, of the way waterboarding has been portrayed by the opinion sections of America's largest newspapers - an aspect which has been described in the study which is the basis of this article. The Harvard study in fact shows that the opinion sections of the newspapers retained a higher level of negative views towards waterboarding. Undeniably, the opinion sections of print publications form an integral part of any free press society. Let us now look at the difference in sheer number of articles published about waterboarding before and after 2002. For many of these newspapers, the number of waterboarding related articles published in the six years between 2002 and 2008 is over three times the total number of articles published in the previous sixty! Regardless of the supposed manner of characterization of the practice to which Mr. Lakshman alludes, the fact remains that there was a markedly dramatic increase in coverage following the Bush administration's actions – and this increase in coverage occurred thanks to the media. Were the newspapers truly whores of the White House as the article implies, they could have paid the topic lip service – but they didn’t. Furthermore, a public outrage on behalf of the American public only resulted following this increased media coverage - where was the rage, debate, and discussion in the past sixty years, when waterboarding was a practice used throughout the Vietnam War?
I am not disputing the study's conclusion that the media has begun to refer to waterboarding as torture on a far more infrequent basis. However, the connection between this categorization and the public opinion is not apparent. As reflected by the opinion sections of newspapers and the sudden debate and attention given to the topic, the American public will not simply sit around and accept such things. This is further more supported by the Obama administration's ban on waterboarding (another point that Mr. Lakshman fails to point out). One would think that the actual ban on the practice is slightly more important than a changing trend in the use of terminology. Before 2002, waterboarding was accepted as torture, but it was given little thought or recognition – it is safe to say that a good portion of the American population may not have even known what it was. Now, thanks to an ongoing debate and increased media coverage, the public has come to know about the issue. The public has subsequently elected a new president, who has in turn acted on the prevailing belief that waterboarding ought to be outlawed. The successful execution of a democratic process hardly seems “antithetical” to the fundamental virtues on which the United States of America was founded.

from:  Vivek P.
Posted on: Jul 14, 2010 at 12:22 IST

@Bhanu Kiran, Abhi

Absolutely agree with you guys. I'm assuming you've read Manufacturing Consent. I have too. And while reading this column, I couldn't help but think of the bespectacled Professor from MIT.
Especially that part which talks about how the media acts "if a country other than the U.S. is the perpetrator."

I was reminded of the chapter of the book where he talks about how the Media covers similar acts of terror when committed by US's allies and when committed by US's opponents.

I think that if this study was extended to include how the Media covers waterboarding when done by US allies, it would reveal a similar figure nearly as low as when the US does it.

from:  Ali
Posted on: Jul 14, 2010 at 04:26 IST

I think the Indian electronic media has been pretty biased too-especially in the last decade. There is a tendency to sound politically right and also appear so. This can be observed in mainstream English news channels. Even recently, the news channels had several debates on whether it was right to have a bandh or strikes. But how many news channels had the guts to question the government repeatedly on its food and agriculture policy? The opposition may not be doing things the right way, but the focus of the media should be in exposing where the government is going wrong.

from:  Mahesh
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 22:29 IST

Indian democracy is older than American democracy. We have been democratic since 1947; the USA has been democratic only since 1960.

from:  Sunil Sherlekar
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 20:35 IST

Very nice article. Noam Chomsky's book, "Manufacturing Consent", is an excellent resource to understand the propaganda model, that is at work in US. We can see this 'propaganda model' at work right now, preparing the back ground and pretexts necessary for a US-Israeli invasion of Iran.

from:  Abhi
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 19:18 IST

I may not be fully in accord with the statement-- there are many reasons why America does this. The only good things about them is when their country men are at stake, they can go to any extent. We always see bad side of things but forget if America treats humans like this it is also the only country where any one from the world can go and settle. Not only that, he/she can participate in the government body.
We never turn up and glorify such acts.

from:  Siddharth Gupta
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 17:03 IST

This editorial shows how even quality newspapers are influenced by The Government of The United States.
The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and other quality newspapers in The United States should take The Hindu as an example and study carefully Mr. N. Ram´s editorial (Saturday, Sep 13, 2003) where he says,"These principles are worth reiterating: truth telling; freedom and independence; justice; humaneness; and contributing to the social good."
Should they apply these principles I am sure quality newspapers in The USA will regain their independence and the American people will trust again in quality newspapers.
Waterboarding is torture and a crime against human rights and especially newspapers must defend democracy and human rights.


Best regards
Kurt Waschnig Oldenburg/Germany

from:  Kurt Waschnig
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 17:00 IST

Very good thought provoking , important article... Only The Hindu has the guts to print such articles..kudos..

from:  kapil
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 15:51 IST

I look forward to the day when a similar study is undertaken of the Indian media as to their freedom and independence in safeguarding a democratic society.

Very often, our media report events wihtout proper verification of facts. Editorial independence of our media is hampered.
Not only am I looking forward to a study but also to effective implementation of remedial measures to ensure press freedom for the benefit of all.

from:  mohansingh
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 14:43 IST

It is not only the print media in the US that is culpable. The bias in the US news channels is far from subtle. However the core reason behind this form of reporting may not be restricted to an incestuous relationship between government and media.

Americans are raised with the ideology of American superiority and infallibility. The idea that the USA can do any wrong is fundamentally offensive to the psyche of the American people. It is hardly surprising, then, that the US media present to the people what they want to see, hear and read, lest the media be held to account by the American public for impinging on their sensibilities. Thus the fallacy of "the oldest and freest democracy" lives in the hearts and minds of most Americans.

In fact narcissism is a weapon used by the West to apply a veneer over the void in their lives.

from:  Samir Mody
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 12:58 IST

If this report is to be believed one can well imagine the rot in the Indian print media that must be larger in size than that of the US!

from:  balvinder
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 11:20 IST

Big fan of Glenn Greenwald's work. Glad to see that his work was mentioned by the author.

from:  Vamsi
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 10:58 IST

Very nice article! But about your highly esteemed newspaper. Any views expressed against your paper is promptly deleted. I am 100% sure that this comment will be moderated and deleted.

from:  Ravi K
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 10:05 IST

I welcome this article. But it's just too late. Nobel prize winning Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT has been researching this phenomenon since 1970s. In 1988, he even wrote an excellent book on this - "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of The Mass Media". Arundhati Roy has given many speeches on this too. The real problem is that the rot in American Media affects not just America but the whole English-speaking world, including the educated classes of countries like India. There are so many people, outside America, who read NYTimes or LATimes or Washington Post or WSJ to get their daily dosage of international "news". This also includes journalists who, in turn, write articles for local media. Then there are local TV channels whose "international news" programmes just copy-paste from American mass media. When American mass media broadcasts propaganda, these act as a globally distributed network of propaganda-amplifiers.

from:  Bhanu Kiran
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 07:15 IST

What I find is that US media has become an embedded press against all the principles of journalism I studied at Marquette, Milwaukee during president Johnson and Vietnam war After that I went once more two years ago to Chicago, but didn't find the press too attractive. Hope to go a third time this August to my Daughter in Chicago.But don't hope to find a freer press there. I will be missing the very very critical Kerala press, partisan papers of course, but all critical to the core. Only one has to read several papers or see several channels to get the whole story.

from:  James Kottoor
Posted on: Jul 13, 2010 at 06:43 IST
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