In the wake of a major journalistic scandal in the United States, broken open in the last week, I have to say that America’s establishment press has never been technically better, but never more pathetically subservient. My hopes increasingly ride on an often bad free press that is getting better all the time.
Let me also say, upfront, that there are honorable exceptions in the top ranks of America’s major media organizations. But in what may well be seen someday as a seminal event in U.S. media history, senior people at the two newspapers widely considered to offer the most comprehensive political coverage have admitted — and, God help us, defended — their technically good subservience to the American government.
Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has discussed in detail the truly disheartening response to a Harvard study showing that the Washington Post and New York Times skewed their coverage of America’s post-9/11 torture policy, using the Bush administration’s newspeak language — “harsh interrogation techniques” was a favorite — instead of plain old “torture,” the word they’d previously used to describe the same acts.
And then, when asked why, top editors and spokespeople at both papers effectively said that once the Bush administration and Republican allies had pushed for the new language, the news organizations were duty-bound to use it, too, or else be seen as slanting the news.
That the news organizations had changed their language was itself disgraceful. That they then compounded the damage, with a defense that was almost the definition of a subservient press, was heartbreaking.
But George Orwell was rolling in his grave — perhaps with joy that he’s been proved so right, but also pure despair.
(Just a note: I have never read Bill Keller since he became executive editor of the New York Times deal with any dispute about the paper in which he did not construct either a convoluted justification for its action or admit something (as he does here, that should be cause for firing him). Whatever may have been his strengths as a reporter, as executive editor he has proved a defensive sophist and led or allowed the quality of a great newspaper to decline. One has to wonder what he would do now if presented with something comparable to the Pentagon Papers. My guess is that he would ask that they be removed from the building at once.)
From the referenced Greenwald article in Salon, regarding the Washington Post position:
And then there’s this, from Cameron Barr, National Security Editor ofThe Washington Post, which also ceased using “torture” on command: “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.” Could you imagine going into “journalism” with this cowardly attitude: once an issue becomes “contentious” and one side begins contesting facts, I’m staying out of it, even if it means abandoning what we’ve recognized as fact for decades. And note how even today, in an interview rather than an article, Barr continues to use the government-subservient euphemism: “waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.” Just contemplate what it means, as Keller and Barr openly admit, that our government officials have veto power over the language which our “independent media” uses to describe what they do.