The Harvard study of four leading newspapers’ failure to use the word "torture" has everyone mad again. Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, offered–as Glenn Greenwald put it–a "demented and reprehensible" attack on the study, which Keller called "tendentious" (Word of the Day, 10/25/2002).
The Harvard study ended in 2008. In April 2009, The Times supposedly adopted a policy of using the word "brutal" instead of their previous euphemism "harsh" when describing waterboarding and other atrocities. I decided to check out Keller’s assertion that now "we usually use the word ‘brutal.’" Through the magic of Google this is relatively easy.
I looked at the last 12 months (7/09-6/10) since by then The Times’ policy change had been in effect for two months. I searched for "interrogations," "interrogation methods," "interrogation practices," "interrogation tactics," and "interrogation techniques" (h/t thesaurus.com for the synonyms). I found they were described as "brutal" 17 times, "harsh" 33 times, and something else 68 times. So despite what Keller says, "brutal" is not the standard word at 620 Eighth Avenue.
I then decided to see what other words The Times is using. I found "coercive" 10 times, "extreme" 4 times, "rough" 1 time, "harmful" 1 time, and "enhanced" an incredible 26 times. (There was no adjective 19 times.) The frequent appearance of the word "enhanced" is especially troubling since this was the euphemism preferred by the Bush administration. Interestingly when The Times uses the word "enhanced" it often appears in scare-quotes, as if the paper is conscious it’s the wrong word.
The main limitation of my little project was that, though I did my best, I couldn’t completely weed out things not under editorial control like Op-Eds, letters, quotes and comments. This would have required reading every article, and I didn’t get the sense it would affect the overall conclusion. I’m convinced Mr. Keller doesn’t know what’s going on at his paper or, more likely, he doesn’t want to say. The Times seems uncomfortable with its own chosen phrase "brutal interrogations," which itself is a sorry substitute for "torture," and mainly uses the most tendentious word of all–"enhanced."