Today in the Washington Post, reporter Chris Cillizza has an article titled “Some Call It Torture. In One Poll, Most Call It Justified.” According to Cillizza, “[A] new poll conducted for Resurgent Republic suggests that the American people — including politically critical independent voters — by and large support the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ [EITs] on suspected al-Qaeda operatives“:
Asked whether such tactics were justified, 53 percent of the overall sample said they were and 34 percent said they were not. […]
On the question of whether such techniques have yielded information that has made the country safer, 52 percent of all respondents said they had while 39 percent said they had not.
Aside from the fact that Cillizza bases his story on a poll from a firm “made up of Republican strategists,” as he acknowledges, the poll’s questions are conducted in such a way that appear to lead the respondents toward support of torture. In Cillizza’s first example — 53 percent say EITs are justified — the poll’s actual question reads, “Based on what you have read or heard, would you say harsh interrogation of detainees was justified or not justified?” Of course, the poll doesn’t ask if “torture” is justifed. Instead it asks if respondents support “harsh interrogation” — the Bush administration’s preferred language for its torture program. Moreover, the question does not give specific examples of such “harsh interrogation” that would give any determination as to what exactly its respondents are supporting.
As far as Cillizza noting the poll’s finding that 52 percent say EITs have made the country safer, again, consider the poll’s actual question. The poll asks respondents if they agree with “Congressman A” who says EITs should not be used because they are “torture” and have not made the U.S. safer or with “Congressman B” who says, “Those techniques are justified when they are the only way to stop the murder of another 3000 innocent Americans in another 9/11.” Given the latter option, it is indeed quite surprising that more Americans would not be in favor, even though such a “ticking time-bomb” situation rarely, if ever, occurs.
Cillizza later cited a recent CNN poll showing a closer “divide” on the issue, with 50 percent supporting torture and 46 percent disapproving. But he ignored a recent poll from his own newspaper which found that “49 percent said they oppose the use of torture no matter the circumstance, 48 percent said there are some cases in which the U.S. should consider it.”
Like Cillizza, the media is caught up in American public opinion based on questions about what has not happened (so-called EITs, ticking-time bomb scenarios, etc.) versus what has actually happened (i.e. torture and potential lawbreaking). Indeed, Congress Matters’s David Waldman made this point in a recent CNN appearance in reference to the media ignoring reports that Vice President Cheney ordered waterboarding to find a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda:
WALDMAN: I know of no American on either side or in the middle who says that its acceptable to be torturing people to get them to say –- to give them the political story you want to give you political comfort back home. I mean this is an astounding violation of international human rights. […] You tell me whether there are people in America who agree with the prospect of torturing people for political gain.
Seeming to recognize the distinction the media makes between the reality of the Bush torture regime and how they cover it, Waldman later added that “everyone has been asked whether or not they can support torture for the cases of the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario. These are people who were being tortured for political reasons. That’s what makes it so disgusting. There’s no framework for dealing with that on television in America.”
Glenn Greenwald has more on “distorting public opinion on torture investigations.”
,In an online chat today, Post media critic Howie Kurtz responded to criticism of Cillizza’s article, saying that it “seems to be to be straight as an arrow. He cites the Republican poll, he explores the findings, and he notes other polls that found the country more divided over torture techniques.”
,Media Matters’ Jamison Foser to pollsters and the media: “If you call it ‘ice cream and cake’ instead of ‘torture,’ people will support it.”