A veteran human rights advocate in Washington explained the press’s dilemma this way:
The people who are doing the transition aren’t talking to anyone. And the people who are talking don’t really know what’s going on. The reporters are under enormous pressure to write stories; so what they inevitably do is go to these people outside of the circle who are either exaggerating their knowledge to make themselves look important, or are advancing an agenda.
(Scott Horton also observed that another piece in the Times Week on Review last Sunday, about how Americans should think about Guantanamo, relied almost exclusively on quotes from supporters of the current administration.)
The piece on the front page of Wednesday’s Times struck me as so unbalanced, I sent this e-mail to four top editors there: “This morning’s torture story on the front page is 1174 words long, of which 147 words are devoted to the anti-torture position, which the reporters writing the story obviously disagree with. I would like to know on what basis you believe this equation meets traditional New York Times standards for fairness and balance.”
Executive editor Bill Keller replied:
Your e-mail is 67 words long, of which zero are devoted to the substance of the story. The story is not a roundup of the debate over the use of torture. It is about the dilemma facing the Obama administration as it seeks a new head of the C.I.A. and tries to decide what level of association with the recent past might disqualify a candidate. One potential choice to head the agency has already withdrawn his name after coming under attack. Now, the piece reports, “Mr. Obama’s search for someone else and his future relationship with the agency are complicated by the tension between his apparent desire to make a clean break with Bush aministration policies he has condemned and concern about alienating an agency with a central role in the campaign against Al Qaeda.” This is a balancing act Obama has not yet resolved, and the article in no way rescribes how he should resolve it…It’s a little unfair to criticize an article for not being some altogether different article you might have written.
Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet told me, “Your take is sort of ridiculous. Your’re reading a point of view on the part of the reporters that is not there. You should read their past stories before jumping to conclusions.”
Since torture is the subject that I have written about more frequently than anything else since I started this blog one year ago, I have indeed read previous stories in the Times about torture, including a particularly egregious one last spring by Scott Shane, which suggested a kind of moral equivalency between opponents and proponents of torture: “Certainly the debate is rich in emotion, with each side claiming the moral heights: You approve torture! You’re coddling terrorists! But the arguments have been scant on science to back them up.”
Then Shane revealed the crucial science which had been ignored in the debate: “…[T]he [Army Field] manual’s inherited wisdom has not been updated to reflect decades of corporate analysis of how to influence consumers. Behavioral economists have dissected decision-making, and academic psychologists have studied political persuasion, but their lessons have not informed the interrogator’s art either.” (I told Baquet that this was one of the oddest observations I had ever read in a newspaper.)
In that same piece, Shane also quoted Benjamin Wittes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a longtime defender of the Bush Administration: “We don’t have any idea — other than anecdote or moral philosophy — what really works.”
That is flatly false.
The one story on this subject that should be required reading for everyone is the piece by a former senior interrogator in Iraq in last Sunday’s Outlook section of The Washington Post, entitled “I’m Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq.”