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.