Monday, July 5, 2010

the power of words: who controls the agenda?

Fierce media critic Glenn Greenwald excoriates the New York Times and other members of the mainstream media for backing down from using the word "torture" to describe water-boarding at the behest of the Bush administration.

This, according to a study by Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The Bush administration-dictated euphemism of choice? "harsh interrogation techniques."

What's in a word? Lots. It's a pernicious case of letting the folks with the most vested interest in the outcome control the agenda: the press abdicating its role of watchdog.

There could be any number of reasons why the NYT played the toad in this case. I suspect a lot had to do with access to a very closed an secretive White House. Piss off your limited sources, and what access you had tends to dry up. All of which, it seems to me, seems to me to turn the First Amendment, and all its intent, on its head.

Back to Greenwald:

In response to the Harvard study documenting how newspapers labeled waterboarding as "torture" for almost 100 years until the Bush administration told them not to, The New York Times issued a statement justifying this behavior on the ground that it did not want to take sides in the debate. Andrew Sullivan, Greg Sargent and Adam Serwer all pointed out that "taking a side" is precisely what the NYT did: by dutifully complying with the Bush script and ceasing to use the term (replacing it with cleansing euphemisms), it endorsed the demonstrably false proposition that waterboarding was something other than torture. Yesterday, the NYT's own Brian Stelter examined this controversy and included a justifying quote from the paper's Executive Editor, Bill Keller, that is one of the more demented and reprehensible statements I've seen from a high-level media executive in some time (h/t Jay Rosen):

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said the newspaper has written so much about the issue of water-boarding that "I think this Kennedy School study -- by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories -- is somewhat misleading and tendentious."

You can find the above links, a pdf of the Harvard story, and more thru Greenwald's piece. bk

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