[Marxism] Daniel Okrent

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 2 07:03:21 MDT 2004

I am not sure how long the NY Times will put up with him, but their 
ombudsman (named after the Jayson Blair scandal) is a pretty decent guy.

In contrast to the mealy-mouthed "correction" on their WMD/Judith Miller 
reporting, Okrent's piece was hard-hitting and to the point.


In another interesting contribution to the ongoing job of ombudsman, he 
responded to readers' (including Doug Henwood) queries about why the NY 
Times used the word abuse rather than torture in its coverage on Abu 
Ghraib. This was his public response:


dokrent - 3:09 PM ET June 1, 2004 (#30 of 30)
'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

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.


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