< Standards Issue


Friday, September 08, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Some believe our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing and questioning terrorists could now be at risk of prosecution under the War Crimes Act, simply for doing their jobs in a thorough and professional way. This is unacceptable.

BOB GARFIELD: On Wednesday, President Bush for the first time acknowledged the presence of secret CIA detention facilities, and he discussed in detail how the administration has been trying to effectively, but legally, interrogate terror suspects. The torturing of suspects by the U.S. military was first reported in The New York Times during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and we learned after the revelations about Abu Ghraib that the White House had crafted a new, narrower definition of torture, specifically that a practice can be called torture only when it, quote, "rises to the level of death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function." A few reporters have done much to uncover the realities of U.S. practices, but Eric Umansky, who has written a history of post-9/11 torture reporting for the Columbia Journalism Review, gives low marks to the media overall. Eric, welcome back to the show.

ERIC UMANSKY: Good to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: Your piece was very indicting about the journalism on the torture story, including a whole laundry list of familiar-sounding lapses – failure to connect the dots, underplaying of major developments, he said/she said, reporting that failed to challenge demonstrably wrong assertions by the Bush Administration. In fact, it was all so familiar that I wonder why you devoted so many months to the anatomy of this particular issue.

ERIC UMANSKY: I happen to think it's a very important story. I just don't think there's been an in-depth look at it, in particular, given the fact that I think the conventional wisdom, and I think it's partially true, that it's reporters who deserve much of or even most of the credit for helping uncover the torture scandal.

BOB GARFIELD: In fact, you lavishly praise the work of several reporters, notably Carlotta Gall of The New York Times and Dana Priest and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post. You assign more blame for the media's half-hearted coverage to editors than you do to reporters. Why do you think they were gun-shy?

ERIC UMANSKY: I think that there are various reasons. I think that there can sometimes be, and this is not just with torture, a certain deference to authority. To be the kind of first to go out there is, I think, a scary place to be. And then in particular, you have this sort of post-9/11 issue when it comes to torture of, you're dealing with these elemental issues of people being afraid for their safety. So to push the issue of torture when it very well might involve torture of really bad men, it feels, I think, a little bit like you're putting yourself out on a ledge there.

BOB GARFIELD: Carlotta Gall of The Times found evidence of death by torture in Afghanistan back in 2002, but it took two years in the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq to generate any major coverage and any widespread moral outrage. But then, after the military paraded a few half-wits before courts martial, and, you know, publicly ripped off their single stripes, the story seemed to disappear.


BOB GARFIELD: What happened?

ERIC UMANSKY: Torture, in the spring of 2004, when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke and when those photos were published, became a kind of big story. You had scoop after scoop. And then the Bush Administration, working with the Republican Congress, I think, actually did a very effective job, frankly, of shutting down the new avenues for possible stories. Usually, or in previous years, you'd have Congressional hearings, and they would go on for some period of time, and newspapers and TV could then peg stories off of that. But you don't have that. Usually you would have an independent investigation that would air things, and then stories could be pegged off that. You don't have that here again. I still think that reporters have an enormous amount of responsibility. I still think that they can push the story. It's difficult. It creates a different terrain. It's just that that's the reality.

BOB GARFIELD: What was left after the Abu Ghraib courts martial that we've seen was the personification of the bad apples theory, that the president and the secretary of defense, Rumsfeld, put forward, completely deflecting responsibility from the top, where finally, lo and behold, on Wednesday the president made clear these directives were emanating.


BOB GARFIELD: Did the press get suckered into buying the bad apple theory, or worse yet, not buy it and fail to discredit it?

ERIC UMANSKY: I think that there was a relatively large failure to discredit it. The focus on these individuals, Lyndie England and others from Abu Ghraib, had a real distorting effect, and, in fact, I would argue, a very misleading one. I mean, if you looked deep enough in the papers, there were certainly efforts, and, I think, successful ones, to discredit that line and to show that abusive interrogation had, in fact, been policy.

BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned the word "abusive," and as separate from "torture."


BOB GARFIELD: I guess that's one of the problems here, the very definition of torture, which, you observe in your piece, the government was viewing in a very narrow way without the press quite noticing.

ERIC UMANSKY: Because torture is illegal, in fact, under U.S. law. What the Bush Administration did was to redefine torture, to say it only is torture in this sort of exceedingly narrow definition. And reporters didn't particularly pick up on that, and you see it in all sorts of circumstances, particularly, I would suggest, in political coverage, where you would have this sort of straight reporting about what Condoleezza Rice was saying or what the president was saying, and just sort of repeating that we don't torture.

BOB GARFIELD: Finally, Eric, on Wednesday, the president unveiled a bill that would liberalize the use of – well, he called them "tough," but torture-like techniques in interrogations.


BOB GARFIELD: And to you, the coverage of that proposed legislation mirrors the coverage of torture over the past four and a half years.

ERIC UMANSKY: Yeah. I mean, what you had was the president talking tough, talking about the tactics that have been used in a kind of euphemistic way. And the papers decide to headline what is, I think, an important aspect of it, and that is the fact that prisoners who were once at the secret CIA prisons are now being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.. But very few papers decided to give prominent coverage to the other aspects of the president's push in this introduction of his bill, and that involves allowing evidence gained through abusive techniques, allowing the CIA to, in fact, use abusive methods, and indemnifying CIA interrogators and administration officials from prosecution under the War Crimes Act. That's all in this bill that the president just previewed, and, unfortunately, only The L.A. Times saw fit to put that on page one.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Eric. Thank you very much.

ERIC UMANSKY: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Eric Umansky is currently a Gordon Gray fellow at the Columbia School of Journalism. His article, "Failures of Imagination: American Journalists and the Coverage of American Torture," is in the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.