BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
The story in Thursday's New York Times was staggering. The Bush administration, despite repeated repudiations of its interrogation practices by both Congress and the courts, twice secretly authorized painful and frightening physical and psychological measures against terror suspects.
The story, based on interviews and leaked administration memos, portrayed the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales himself, not as protectors of the Constitution and disinterested arbiters of the law, but as advocates of Bush/Cheney policy, right or wrong –– the result, legal opinions sanctioning head slapping, sleep deprivation, frigid temperatures and simulated drowning known as water-boarding.
Both opinions were rendered after the Justice Department publicly declared torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino did not deny the authenticity of the documents. She did assert that handcuffing prisoners naked in 50-degree cells and soaking their hooded faces with water to make them fear suffocation constitute lawful interrogation -- if not to Congress and the courts, at least to the President. DANA PERINO: The policy of the United States is not to torture. The President has not authorized it. He will not authorize it. BOB GARFIELD: In much of the blogosphere, the Times investigation was regarded as a smoking gun in the red hands of an administration that interprets the Constitution and international law as it sees fit. A liberal commentator at the site Hullabaloo titled her posting "Sociopathic Governance" and chillingly invoked Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil."
The House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee demanded that the Justice Department furnish the legal memos, and Arlen Specter, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the revelations were shocking. Arlen Specter was shocked. Brian Williams? Not so much.
The NBC Nightly News led with Senator Larry Craig vowing not to step down despite losing his bid to withdraw his guilty plea in a sex solicitation case. The torture story ran next.
ABC's World News Tonight never mentioned it at all, nor did the CBS Evening News. But, on an otherwise slow news day, Katie Couric did manage to scoop the competition. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] KATIE COURIC: Good evening, everyone. The holidays are coming up fast. We can tell you tonight that plane tickets will be in short supply and they'll cost plenty. Nancy Cordes is at Reagan National Airport. Nancy, what's the problem? BOB GARIELD: What is the problem? On this program, given the infinite options facing news organizations and internal exigencies unknown to us, we try to avoid finding fault over stories not run. But what part of "secret authorization of torture" does Katie Couric not understand?
As poster children for the so-called mainstream media, the major networks have yet to live down their insufficient skepticism of government claims in the lead-up to the Iraq war. While they're hardly the caricatures of quiescence, credulousness and complacency left-wing bloggers have made them out to be, they certainly have plenty to answer for and ample motivation to regain lost credibility, to say nothing of the basic duty to keep their audience informed. On Thursday, shockingly, they failed. MALE CORRESPONDANT: Hospital food. Now, when we say those two words, we know what goes through your mind. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Overcooked chicken, vegetables steamed to a state of limp tastelessness. But there are some hospitals trying to change all that. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]