Big Media Bails on Torture

What’s more newsworthy: President Obama’s decision to declassify C.I.A. documents on torture, or the actual contents of those documents? The U.S. media chose the former, and in doing so, has once again failed the public in providing clarity and context on a complex issue – failing to ask hard-hitting, provocative questions, and failing to hold our political leaders accountable.

Rather than investigate what these memos reveal about the harsh interrogation techniques implemented under the Bush administration and who can be implicated for using torture, our media has focused their debate on political posturing and gossip surrounding Obama’s decision to release the memos.

A report by Link TV compares U.S. coverage of the torture memos to the international press coverage in countries like Chile, Iran, and France. If we’re ashamed as a nation about torture, we should also be embarrassed about how our press coverage of torture stacks up. Click through to see the Link TV video…

The U.S. media detracted from the actual story, instead asking, “Should the memos have been released?” and “What impact will this have on Obama?” But commentators and journalists worldwide asked more important and hard-hitting questions such as, “What’s the impact of torture on international affairs?” and “Who is to blame for allowing such acts?” The U.S. media has steered clear in leading a discussion about the moral ramifications of torture, instead asking whether the practices were effective in gaining information from detainees.

The U.S. media routinely reports on conflicts without telling us anything of substance about the real issues at the root of the controversy, as evidenced by the media’s response to the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Much of the reporting focused on the photos themselves and the situation of their release, instead of on the acts that the photos documented.

This soft, off-target coverage of social issues highlights two core elements of our media system that are failing the public and harming our democracy. The first is a weakness built into the DNA of our corporate media system, and the second is a function of the way that media system has grown (or perhaps “shrunk” is more apt).

Rampant Media Consolidation

For decades, the companies that own newspapers and broadcast news outlets have raked in record profits. Instead of investing those profits back into newsgathering, investigative journalism, and critical analysis, media owners have siphoned off that money to buy up other outlets, pay off old debts, and line stockholders’ pockets. After years of slashing jobs and closing news bureaus, mainstream media has resorted to cheap and easy to produce “he-said/she-said” reporting in place of investigative journalism and in-depth analysis. In essence, journalism has become a “for-profit” business, and press coverage is determined by market forces rather than a commitment to protect the public.

Rampant consolidation drastically decreases the diversity of voices and viewpoints owning and making the news, and also creates a troubling echo chamber across all sectors of the media. Paired with our media’s penchant for gossip and sensationalism, we get a glut of junk news promoted and repeated until it becomes a “national story.” The impact of this echo chamber effect is dramatic; indeed, it can be a matter of life and death.

The Dangerous Media Echo Chamber

The media’s complicity in our march to war in Iraq, especially its regurgitation of the Bush administration’s bogus WMD talking points, has been well documented here and here. And just recently the New York Times reported how once again the media influenced the public through a similar echo chamber that made torture palatable, acceptable and even necessary to the American people.

In his article, “How ’07 ABC Interview Tilted a Torture Debate,” Times reporter Brian Stelter describes an interview between ABC News and John Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. officer. During the interview, Kiriakou asserts that waterboarding was used by the agency in a limited way and that “the technique worked and yielded results very quickly.” His statement was used across the media to defend torture. Stelter writes:

“His claims — unverified at the time, but repeated by dozens of broadcasts, blogs and newspapers — have been sharply contradicted by a newly declassified Justice Department memo. […] During the heated debate in 2007 over the use of waterboarding and other techniques, Mr. Kiriakou’s comments quickly ricocheted around the media. But lost in much of the coverage was the fact that Mr. Kiriakou had no firsthand knowledge of the waterboarding.”

Only now, months after the heightened waterboarding scandal has died down and we have an official memo to refer to, is the media beginning to question the truth behind Kiriakou and others’ statements. But where was the media when he made his initial claim? The media whitewashed the story, and led the public to believe that waterboarding was something less than a cruel interrogation technique, but a simple “thirty to 35 seconds, and it works.”

With the release of the torture memos, the media now has another chance to hold accountable those responsible for enforcing and carrying out torture, and give a nation space to grow and heal after committing such acts. But if the media continues to use the memos as a quick and cheap news bite to banter about Obama’s decision, the egregiousness of torture will continue because the substantive debate has been silenced.

(Originally published at, with thank to Megan Tady)

1 Comment

  1. Thanks, Josh. Very clear highlighting of the contrasts in the coverage–and the implications for America and our media.

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