Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tortured news judgment

-- by Dave

You may have noticed that the blogosphere is abuzz with the ABC reportage revearling, as Marcy puts it, "what we already knew: the torture was approved--in excruciating detail--by the most senior members of the Bush Administration." And as Eli points out, this flies in the face of everything the Bush administration was telling the public at the time.

They were lying to us. And it tells us just how degraded our public discourse has become both at the hands of the conservative movement, embodied in the Bush administration, and of the mainstream media -- particularly the Village Idiots -- that this apparently is no big deal.

As usual, Digby puts it best:
There was a time when the Village clucked and screeched about "defiling the white house" with an extra marital affair or hosting fund raising coffees. I would say this leaves a far greater stain on that institution than any sexual act could ever do. They did this in your name, Americans.

The vice president, national security advisor and members of the president's cabinet sat around the white house "choreographing" the torture and the president approved it. I have to say that even in my most vivid imaginings about this torture scheme it didn't occur to me that the highest levels of the cabinet were personally involved (except Cheney and Rumsfeld, of course) much less that we would reach a point where the president of the United States would shrug his shoulders and say he approved. I assumed they were all vaguely knowledgeable, some more than others, but that they would have done everything in their power to keep their own fingerprints off of it. But no. It sounds as though they were eagerly involved, they all signed off unanimously and thought nothing of it.

And most of all, as she later points out:
This news was buried in a Friday news dump, but even so you would think news organizations would highlight this amazing story on the front page of their web site and mention it in their newscasts. Who would have ever thought you'd have a president casually say something like this?

He was willing to say it because he knows full well by now that the Washington press corps, fearful of being accused of insufficient patriotism, won't call him on it -- won't make it what, in a world in which traditional news judgment held sway, should be the one of the most pressing and discussed issues on the lips of the Beltway poobahs. Instead we get phony controversies, whipped up by right-wing talkers but fully embraced by every mainstream media outlet, like the Obama "pastor problem" and -- oooh! look! -- this week we'll all talk about how Obama dissed the rural folk!

Pfheh. Pardon me while I fwow up.

This is has been an increasing problem with the mainstream media for the past decade and more, and it's been acute since 9/11 -- the abject willingness to play propaganda organ for the right-wing Wurlitzer is not only one of the main reasons we invaded Iraq in the first damned place, it's also a large part of the reason we're enmeshed in such a quagmire there even today. It was obvious to a handful of dirty hippie bloggers back in 2003 that the Bush administration had neither any occupation strategy nor any exit strategy in place when we invaded, but you would be hard-pressed to find any mainstream pundits who thought that such shortsighted planning might be a long-term problem.

And of course, it's why we now stand alone in the world as the one supposedly "First World" nation that condones, and sponsors, the use of torture on detainees. The likelihood in fact that the Bush administration was in the process of committing war crimes was raised as early as March 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. It came front and center briefly during the uproar over Abu Ghraib -- at which time, as we noted here, there was plenty of evidence that the support for torture came from high up the chain of command.

Recall that at the time, Human Rights Watch insisted:
The promised U.S. investigation into the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners should not stop with the lower-level soldiers who were immediately involved, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States should also investigate the superiors of these soldiers to see whether they ordered or knowingly tolerated these abuses.

Yet in fact, what happened was that the media largely swallowed the administration's line:
U.S. President George W. Bush claimed the acts were in no way indicative of normal or acceptable practices in the United States Army.

The public denunciation of torture of prisoners by the president and other US officials contradicted the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies, according to more than two dozen current and former officials, created a distinction between forbidden "torture" and the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading" methods of questioning which they advanced as permissible. The vice president's office played a central role in eliminating limits on coercion in U.S. custody, commissioning and defending legal opinions that the Bush administration later described as the initiatives, months later, of lower-ranking officials. The Geneva Convention, which has been ratified by the U.S. and is therefore the law of the land, is explicit and categorical in banning torture, the use of "violence," "cruel treatment" or "humiliating and degrading treatment" against a detainee "at any time and in any place whatsoever." The War Crimes Act of 1996 made any grave breach of those restrictions a U.S. felony.

Initially, the media responded with some vigor -- several major outlets, notably the New York Times, called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. Nonetheless, Rumsfeld remained -- in no small part because the rest of the media, particularly the broadcast crowd, stayed largely mum or "neutral."

Of course, then there was Rush Limbaugh:
"This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of emotional release?"

In the end, no one beyond the low-level soldiers involved in the actual abuse suffered any kind of serious consequences. So much for going up the chain of command.

The matter gradually receded from public view, especially as the debate over torture was increasingly polluted by 24-inspired terrorist fantasies, culminating in Antonin Scalia's bizarre disquisition defending torture under such scenario.

And of course, the media yawned.

Meanwhile, talking about angry, discontented rural Americans with guns -- you know, like the Minutemen you find Lou Dobbs plumping every other week or so -- somehow ranks as the most important issue in the news.

Do any of these people know what the hell news judgment is supposed to be? If not, why are they running the news?

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