Accuracy in Media

The media have been portraying the issue of torture in simple terms?President Bush and Vice President Cheney support it, and all right-thinking people are opposed. But it’s much more complicated than that. The media are either too lazy or too ideological to present the facts. 

A major part of the controversy is how you define the term.

Remember that the media had published many stories about alleged “desecration” of the Koran, without making it plain that “desecration” could involve merely touching the Muslim book. Most people would reject the touching of the Koran as a form of desecration. That’s how the media distort a controversy by failing to define their terms.

The latest controversy involved reports that U.S. and Iraqi forces raided a secret Iraqi detention center in central Baghdad and freed about 170 Sunni prisoners. What allegedly happened to these prisoners, by the Shi’ite-led Badr Brigade, one of the main Shi’ite militia groups, is that they were starved, and tortured with electric shocks and drills. That certainly sounds like torture. But the U.S. in this case sparked the raid that exposed the abuses and freed the prisoners.

The official U.S. position has been that it has no policy to torture prisoners.

But these words ring hollow to many in the U.S. media, who have already found the Bush Administration guilty of engaging in the practice, however they define it.

In a cover story in the November 21st issue of Newsweek magazine, for example, Evan Thomas and Michael Hirsh went further, coming up with the concept of “torture lite,” which was defined as “enhanced” interrogation techniques, “like placing a smelly hood over a prisoner and making him stand or squat naked for hours in a cold and dark room.” 

On Capitol Hill, an amendment to a defense bill, introduced by Senator John McCain of Arizona, set out in legislation to ban “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of prisoners. That was presented by our media as a ban on torture. The amendment passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, and the final defense bill passed 98-0. But what exactly is “degrading” treatment? Is that torture?

Newsweek carried an essay by McCain along with their cover story. “Even McCain recognizes there could be rare instances when a president disobeys the law,” say Thomas and Hirsh in their story, “and orders a suspect tortured?say, if Al Qaeda had hidden a nuclear bomb in New York and a suspect involved in the plot had been captured. ‘You do what you have to do,’ McCain told Newsweek?But you take responsibility for it.”

Newsweek used that as an opportunity to bash Bush: “Taking responsibility would be a new concept for the Bush administration,” it said. To illustrate the point, the magazine said that no high-ranking officers have been prosecuted in connection with the abuses, and no Pentagon official has even been publicly reprimanded.

But the issue isn’t so simple. The words of John McCain, a former POW himself, carry substantial weight. But how is torture defined?  Is it torture to humiliate someone, whether through sexual innuendo or touching a copy of the Koran? Is it torture to deprive someone of sleep, or force them to sit in an uncomfortable position?

However one defines it, there have been more than a dozen major inquiries, and none says there has been a torture policy put in place by top civilian and military leaders.

As noted by the Wall Street Journal, cases of abuse amount to a few hundred out of more than 70,000 detainees. The Journal said this compares favorably with the U.S. prison system, and past wars, including Vietnam and World War II. In the case of Abu Ghraib, it was the Pentagon that released the information about alleged abuse to the news media, and it had already begun prosecuting the violators when the story and the photos were picked up and publicized by CBS and Seymour Hersh.

Once again, the Bush administration has done a very poor job of stating and defending its position. While negotiating with Senator McCain on his amendment, which still needs to go through the House and the reconciliation process, the White House has sought an exemption for the CIA. This is unfairly and inaccurately presented by our media as a position in favor of torture.

The controversy is further muddled by the fact that many of the detainees, namely the suspected terrorists, are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, which have strict definitions of “prisoner of war” status.

In any case, no one should confuse how we are treating our detainees and prisoners with what was discovered in Baghdad, allegedly committed by the Badr Brigade, or what Saddam Hussein did to hundreds of thousands of his own people over 30 years.

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