BROOKE GLADSTONE: If torture as an official designation does not constitute a crime in state legal codes, it does nationally. We've seen the issue aired over and over again in the age of terrorism, as in this 2007 exchange between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey during his confirmation hearings.
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Just to finish that thought, is waterboarding constitutional?
MICHAEL MUKASEY: I don’t know what’s involved in the technique. If waterboarding is, is torture, torture is not constitutional.
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: That’s a massive hedge. I mean, it either is or it isn’t. Do you have an opinion on whether waterboarding is constitutional?
MICHAEL MUKASEY: If it amounts to torture, it is not constitutional.
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I’m very disappointed in that answer. I think it is purely semantic.
MICHAEL MUKASEY: I’m sorry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We've had lots of discussions with media critics, newspaper editors, even NPR’s ombudsman, over whether media outlets should apply the word “torture” to waterboarding, even if the term carries a heavy load of controversy or contention. Malcolm Nance, a former instructor at the U.S. Naval Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School in San Diego, who prepared solders to withstand torture, in part by waterboarding them, told us that no one should parse words when reporting on it.
MALCOLM NANCE: Waterboarding is intended to put water down into your throat, into your trachea and then, with enough water, into your lungs, you are drowning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What phrase do you think the media ought to use?
MALCOLM NANCE: Drowning torture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Back in 2007, we called Los Angeles Times National Editorial Scott Kraft for a second opinion.
SCOTT KRAFT: I think I’d be reluctant to call it drowning torture, just because “torture” has become a politically charged word. It’s actually at the very center of what – why we're even writing about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He was by no means alone in this view. We spoke to The Chicago Tribune and other papers. Our unscientific study suggested that his view was widely held, that journalistic impartiality demanded that serious news outlets steer clear of that semantic swamp. Recently, researchers at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center conducted a quantitative analysis of how waterboarding has been characterized at a few major American papers, going back more than a century.
NEAL DESAI: Over the entire lifespan of the newspapers - that’s stretching back to as far as the 1850s for The New York Times - when the United States was the perpetrator, the practice was almost uniformly not called torture.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Neal Desai, one of the researchers on the study. We'll be hearing more from him in a moment.