For those that still try to "practice" journalism and do so responsibly and ethically, this blog if for them.
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Was it un-American for Woodward and Bernstein to investigate President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate? Or was it un-American that the President of the United States was breaking American laws? Was it un-American for Matt Drudge to use the Internet to break the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal? Or was it un-American of President Clinton to abuse his power in office?
Journalists, in their role as the “Fourth” and now increasingly “Fifth” Estate with the rise of blogs, have had little trouble questioning authority, particularly that of Presidents, exercising the American right of free speech in the the pursuit of—what else?—the TRUTH. Which is why an article by Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald is so disturbing. Greenwald’s June 30 article “New Study Documents Media’s Servitude to Government” examines not a negligible shift in the way mainstream media uses the term “waterboarding” with regard to torture.
I’ll spare you the details here; Mr. Greenwald does a fine job of laying out his case himself. But it suffices to say that the shift is more than conspicuous. The term “waterboarding” has been around since at least the 1930s. Major newspapers overwhelmingly referred to it as “torture”—roughly 80% of the time the term was used across the board in their publications regardless of what country was performing it. Then, in 2004, it was still referred to as “torture” roughly 80% of the time-but only if other countries were employing the “harsh interrogation” technique. When American’s used it, newspapers after 2004 referred to it as torture no more than 5% of the time, and in the case of The New York Times, less than 2%.
Is the press un-American for calling waterboarding “torture”? Of course not, but I’m sure that’s what it’s afraid of. I don’t know which is worse: mitigating the truth through semantics because it is afraid of politicians or mitigating the truth because it is afraid a myopic public won’t buy its content. Either way, the primary purpose of journalism-to seek truth and report it- is lost, and the practice of journalism is useless.
Now, I am not saying that I agree that waterboarding is torture. Maybe it’s not. Societal norms evolve all the time. Interracial marriage used to be illegal; then our standards evolved. Waterboarding may have been thought to be barbaric, but then we realized it was necessary for national security and not that bad. I really couldn’t care less. What I do care about is that the media is consistent. Either waterboarding is torture in Greenland and the United States or it’s torture nowhere. To play it off as one way for one country and another for our own is not only to blur the lines of what is true and what is not, but it makes the media look foolish and incredible.
If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, let’s make sure it’s a duck wherever our story takes place, and not only when it’s the convenient thing for our audience to hear.
Copyright 2010 David R. Norton