Amid the barrage of readers' questions surrounding the New York Times' reporting on the newly released Guantanamo Bay documents from WikiLeaks, Bill Keller once more took on the question of the Times' use (or rather, avoidance) of the word "torture" to describe U.S. interrogation techniques, calling its use "polemical":
Q. The article today says the documents "are largely silent about the use of the harsh interrogation tactics at Guantánamo." Why does The New York Times continue to refuse to call torture by its name?
— Aaron Dome, Chicago
A. Some of the interrogation methods may fit a legal or common-sense definition of torture. Others may not. To refer to the whole range of practices as "torture" would be simply polemical.
— Bill Keller
Keller took a few lumps last summer when he defended the paper's decision, illuminated in a Harvard study, not to use the word in reference to waterboarding. The Times executive editor won no friends when he dismissed the study as "somewhat misleading and tendentious." At the time, Salon's Glenn Greenwald called Keller's dismissal "one of the more demented and reprehensible statements I've seen from a high-level media executive in some time." Scott Horton said Keller was being "politically subordinate."
But eventually the debate faded and the paper continued not to use the word "torture" to refer to waterboarding or other interrogation techniques used by the United States. This latest round of reporting on Guantanamo Bay is no different, and Keller was likely bracing himself for more blowback. In a post Monday in The Distant Ocean, John Caruso calls the Times editors "boot-licking stenographers of power." But surprisingly, not too many other voices have joined the chorus.
Perhaps people were busy on Monday and missed the Times' reader Q&A, or perhaps there's just nothing left to say about it now that Keller has shown his aversion to changing this policy. Could Keller have simply waited out the pundits that howled for his job back in July? Doubtful, but so far the field of critics is spookily silent.