Two tortured things from the NYT Week in Review

Two things from yesterday’s Week in Review:

First, from Frank Rich’s column (p. 14), “The Banality of Bush White House Evil”, about the recently released Justice Department “torture memos”, in a section on Judge Jay Bybee, author of an August 1, 2002, memo “endorsing in lengthy, prurient detail” various interrogation techniques. I particularly relished Rich’s reference to “Bybee’s perverted lawyering and pornographic amorality”. Now there’s a phrase!

Continuing with the torture theme, Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column “Telling the Brutal Truth” (p. 12) examines disagreements about the use of the word torture (and various adjectives) with reference to various practices, in particular waterboarding; the Times has used torture on its editorial pages for some time, but the question is how to refer to these practices elsewhere in the paper. Washington bureau chief Douglas Jehl weighed in; as Hoyt writes:

Jehl said that when the paper is discussing what is generally regarded as the most extreme interrogation method the C.I.A. used, waterboarding, “we’ve become more explicit that it’s a near-drowning technique” [rather than a “simulated drowning technique”] that Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and many other experts “have called torture.” But he said: “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” Jehl argued for precision and caution. I agree.

On the adjective front, Hoyt reports that

Until this month, what the Bush administration called “enhanced” interrogation techniques were “harsh” techniques in the news pages of  The Times. Increasingly, they are “brutal.”

But the paper’s not going all the way to calling it torture in the news pages.

One reader suggested avoiding all adjectives — no heads like “Memos Spell Out Brutal C.I.A. Mode of Interrogation” (17 April)! — but Deborah Tannen noted that “The search for words that are not in any way evaluative is hopeless”, but adding that there was a big difference between harsh and brutal.

One thing is certain: whatever the paper does, some readers are going to be outraged.

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