The State of American Democracy

Research-based Analysis and Commentary by the Department of Politics at the John-F.-Kennedy Institute

At Long Last: Some Dare Call It Torture

Recent editorials in the NYT as well as a newly released report signify a possible shift in mainstream framing of “enhanced interrogation tactics” employed in the United States’ War on Terror. That’s good. …But now what?

Seven years ago, in 2006, Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence and Steven Livingston investigated press coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison story. Their findings revealed that most news coverage was geared towards official (i.e. government) framing of the events and left little room for potential counter-framing.[1] “None dare call it torture,” they conclude, referring to mainstream media outlets and their much more prevalent use of the term “prisoner abuse.”[2]

Arguably long over-due but therefore somewhat surprisingly, the New York Times’ editorial board seems to have shifted on its position on this significantly and came out with strong and definitive stances on the subject over the course of the last week.[3] First, a powerful Op-ed by a Guantanamo detainee, currently on hunger strike, described vividly the practices of force-feeding and the injustice of his prolonged incarceration without a trial or even an official charge brought against him.

Then, today, the paper’s editorial focusses on a report by a bi-partisan commission investigating the systemic abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody. Here the title of the piece is also its main conclusion: „Indisputable Torture„.

Indeed, the 602 page report by the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment leaves little room for any other interpretation. Its main findings include that,

  • the U.S. did, in fact, engage in “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” practices, constituting torture (p.9),
  • high-ranking officials ultimately bear responsibility for this,
  • these interrogation techniques produced no “significant information of value” (p.10), and [in a clear articulation of criticism aimed at the Obama administration]
  • the U.S. has done little to nothing to properly address these concerns (pp. 12-15).

The same sentiment is echoed in today’s NYT editorial:

“President Obama chose not to support a national commission to investigate the post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs. At that time, Mr. Obama said he wanted to ‘look forward, not backward.’ But identifying past mistakes so they can be avoided is central to looking forward.”

It now seems that the logical, if somewhat bulky, next question to ask is: Dare some call for political and legal consequences?

Recommended additional reading material:

The same three authors mentioned above (Bennett, Lawrence & Livingston) expand their main argument in their study explaining press coverage of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina in a 2007 publication titled When the Press Fails. This and other relevant texts can be found in the reading material for my course on media and U.S. political discourse (Handapparat 17) at the JFK Institute’s library. For more on the various models explaining news coverage and press-state relations, see: Entman, Robert (2004): Projections of Power, and Hallin, Daniel (1994): We keep America on Top of the World.

[1] In doing so, Bennett et al. also provide an overview of and a test for three of the most potent explanations of press-state relations, namely the “indexing,” “event driven news,” and “cascading activation” models. [For anyone interested in the role of the news media in U.S. political discourse and public opinion on foreign policy, this makes for fascinating reading!]

Bennett, W. L., Lawrence, R. G. and Livingston, S. (2006), None Dare Call It Torture: Indexing and the Limits of Press Independence in the Abu Ghraib Scandal. Journal of Communication, 56: 467–485.

[2] A 2011 study, published in the Journal of Communication adds to the basic findings, while making a case for the cascading activation model in finding that some policy elites did in fact supply counter-frames but were largely ignored by mainstream media coverage:

Rowling, C. M., Jones, T. M. and Sheets, P. (2011), Some Dared Call It Torture: Cultural Resonance, Abu Ghraib, and a Selectively Echoing Press. Journal of Communication, 61: 1043–1061.

[3] Without getting into debates on the various theoretical models in this format, it would make for an interesting research project to investigate why and how this shift occurred. I would be initially tempted to cautiously dismiss event driven news and indexing and view this as a process best explained through the cascading activation model.

Der Beitrag wurde am Mittwoch, den 17. April 2013 um 16:26 Uhr von Curd Knüpfer veröffentlicht und wurde unter Global Issues, Krieg und Frieden: U.S. Foreign Policy Watch abgelegt. Sie können die Kommentare zu diesem Eintrag durch den RSS 2.0 Feed verfolgen. Kommentare und Pings sind derzeit nicht erlaubt.

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  1. Curd Knüpfer

    Interesting editorial in the Economist today:|hig|5-2-2013|5641225|35083977|