10/06/04 ACTIVISM UPDATE: NY Times Responds to FAIR Alert on Torture


Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Media analysis, critiques and activism

June 10, 2004

New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent posted a response to FAIR's May 14 action alert that criticized the paper's May 14 report about CIA and Justice Department interrogation methods of Al Qaeda suspects. Though the techniques described in the article clearly seem to meet the legal definition of torture, the Times presented administration denials that these methods constituted torture, appeared to accept in its own reporters' voice that they were not torture, and failed to include legal or human rights experts who might disagree with official claims that these practices merely “simulate torture.”

Okrent's response, posted on the Times website and emailed to FAIR activists, is printed below, followed by comments from FAIR.


'Torture' vs. 'Abuse' In The Times's Coverage of Iraq Prisons

As aggressive as Times reporting can sometimes be, it doesn’t always find a parallel in the paper's use of language. The Iraq prison story is an excellent example, as many readers have noted: articles over the last few weeks have established the extent of the scandal, and have included many pieces of first-person testimony from former prisoners. But the language used in news articles to characterize what went on at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere remains, at least in headlines, comparatively delicate.

The specific issue is the use of “abuse” rather than “torture” to describe certain actions of American military personnel, intelligence officers, and private subcontractors. I asked assistant managing editors Craig Whitney and Allan M. Siegal for comment as they are, respectively, in charge of the news desk (where front page headlines get written) and all matters of language and style. Both were surprised when I raised the issue; both noted some substantive definitional distinctions between “abuse” and “torture”; both asserted that there is no Times policy one way or another; and both acknowledged that readers may be right.

Wrote Whitney in an e-mail message, “Now that you tell me people are reading things into our not using 'torture' in headlines, I’ll pay closer attention.”

Personally, I was torn – until a conversation I had last week with a reader from Germany. Absent any clear definition, I felt, it seemed reasonable to use “abuse” if it helped keep temperatures down, much as the use of “militant” instead of “terrorist” in the Palestine-Israel conflict suggests a sometimes misplaced wish neither to take sides nor to be inflammatory (many supporters of Israel feel very differently about this, and I expect to address the specific issue in a future column).

But just as a terrorist is sometimes, in fact, a terrorist, torture is inescapably torture. The reader who moved me out of the muddled center on this did it with a simple question: “If the same things [that happened at Abu Ghraib] had been done to American prisoners by Iraqi authorities, would The Times have hesitated to use ‘torture’ over and over again?”

Over the past five years, the paper has used the word to describe the actions of authorities in Iraq, China, Mexico, Turkey, Chad and elsewhere, including a precinct house in Brooklyn, in the Abner Louima case. In each case, I believe, there was a sense that the torturers were characterized, in part, by their otherness – other nationalities, other political systems, or in the Louima instance other, depraved moral codes.

In Iraq, the perpetrators of the prison horrors were our representatives – ordinary Americans whose behavior may have been altered by circumstances, but who in their origins and histories are as familiar to us as our neighbors and co-workers.

Siegal, who notes that The Times has no policy on the use of “torture,” cautioned me in an e-mail that his sense of the word (and of “abuse”) was “impressionistic rather than researched,” but I buy what he ended up with: “torture occurs when a prisoner is physically or psychologically maltreated during the process of interrogation, or as punishment for some activity or political position. Abuse occurs when the prisoner’s jailers maltreat her or him separately from the interrogation process.”

Siegal also acknowledges that there's a continuum that has to be measured. If, for instance, a man is kept hooded for an hour, is that in itself torture? What about five hours? What about 24? If the headline language has in fact been delicate, maybe that’s because the distinctions are delicate. But as good reporting brings us greater knowledge of what has gone in prisons and detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the distinctions become firm enough to be indisputable.

Note the description the paper used on Monday, May 31, in a chart explaining the deaths of various detainees in Iraq prisons: “Cause of death was a blow to the head and 'compromised respiration.' Died during an interrogation process by Navy Seals and C.I.A. employees.”

If that's not torture, then The Times might just as well call it a game of tag.


FAIR is encouraged that Okrent took seriously the question of how prisoner abuse is reported, and his starting a conversation with Times staffers about it can only be positive. However, his response failed to address the specific article that the Action Alert referred to, which raised issues quite separate from those he addressed in his alert.

Okrent includes the opinion of Times assistant managing editor Allan Siegal, who explains the distinction he makes between torture and abuse: Torture “occurs when a prisoner is physically or psychologically maltreated during the process of interrogation,” while the term “abuse” is relevant when mistreatment occurs outside of the interrogation process.

Okrent could have pointed out to readers, as the FAIR alert did, that there is a legal definition of torture under the 1984 Convention Against Torture, to which the U.S. is a signatory. While the infliction of physical or psychological pain for the purposes of interrogation or punishment are covered, the term also includes pain inflicted for the purpose of “intimidating or coercing” a prisoner, or “for any reason based on discrimination of any kind”—much broader than Siegal's definition.

In any case, Siegal's definition does not explain anything about the article FAIR cited, because the CIA methods under discussion there were explicitly connected to interrogation. And FAIR's complaint was not simply that the Times did not use the word “torture” describe these interrogation methods (such as prolonged submersion), but that it quoted without rebuttal adminstration assertions that this was not torture, and seemed to echo these assertions in the reporters' own voice. FAIR wrote:


The article took pains to explain why, according to U.S. officials, such techniques do not constitute torture: “Defenders of the operation said the methods stopped short of torture, did not violate American anti-torture statutes, and were necessary to fight a war against a nebulous enemy whose strength and intentions could only be gleaned by extracting information from often uncooperative detainees.”

The article seemed to accept that the techniques described are something other than torture: “The tactics simulate torture, but officials say they are supposed to stop short of serious injury.”


We agree with Okrent that it is journalistically responsible to use the word “torture” to describe treatment that would merit that description if it were being done to rather than by Americans. We hope that he'll keep an eye on future coverage to see if terminology is being applied evenhandedly.

Read Okrent's post at:

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