For more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks and America’s sometimes criminal response — torture, perpetual imprisonment, kidnapping, pervasive surveillance and more — the New York Times and almost all other American news organizations demonstrated journalistic cowardice on an epic level. Most served as cheerleaders for a war that was launched under false pretenses. Some withheld news of surpassing importance.

And, almost universally, they refused to call torture what it is, substituting language like “harsh interrogation methods” for this evil and flatly illegal practice.

The New York Times has decided, at long last, to tell the truth about torture, at least in future news columns. (Its editorial page has, for some time now, been calling torture what it is, for which it deserves kudos.)

But in explaining this move, the Times’ editor, Dean Baquet, only compounds the damage, by holding to the fiction that there was any remote justification for the paper’s years of craven kowtowing to White House and other (mostly) right-wing bullying. Baquet wrote:

While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.

The “dispute” was a concoction. It was a deliberate propaganda ploy by a government that relentlessly lied about its methods and motives.

Our news media bowed to the Bush administration’s Orwellian insistence that the United States wasn’t torturing people, even though this was one of the most wanton lies. America had even convicted others of war crimes for some of these same acts, but that went down the memory hole.

Cowardice alone doesn’t explain the news media’s continuing failure on torture. Washington journalists’ penchant for stenography over actual journalism — and the lazy, pernicious “report both sides of the issue” (even when one is lying) methodology of modern political and business reporting — has been part of the problem. What Jay Rosen and others have called the “view from nowhere” has given us “journalism” instead of the real thing, and I’m sad to say it’s still the rule rather than the exception among people who continue to choose access over honor.

The New York Times is doing the right thing by deciding to tell the truth in the future. But, sadly, Baquet’s explanation is no less craven than what his colleagues have been doing for years.

He, and the Times, would earn a lot more respect if they did something simple, right now: Apologize.


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