Bill Keller Explains Why the Press is Broken

The Shorenstein Center released an excellent study (PDF) recently showing that in the pre-9/11 era, the American media consistently referred to waterboarding as torture. Then once it was revealed that the US government had been involved in torturing people via the waterboarding method “media sources appear to have changed their characterization of the practice.”

Bill Keller, explaining why this happens, more or less tells you what you need to know about the broken nature of today’s journalism:

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.”

In an e-mail message on Thursday, Mr. Keller said that defenders of the practice of water-boarding, “including senior officials of the Bush administration,” insisted that it did not constitute torture.

“When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading The Times’ coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”

The Times did a lot of excellent reporting on this issue, as Keller says. But it’s also the case that, as Keller says, once something becomes the active subject of partisan political controversy the NYT follows much of the rest of the mainstream media in becoming agnostic about factual and analytical judgments it wouldn’t hesitate to reach in other circumstances.