When the Senate released its shocking report on CIA torture late last year, it renewed a debate from the Bush years about the merits of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Polls released afterward suggested that most Americans thought that torture was effective and, in some cases, justified. Yet the report was very clear: Torture produced virtually no valuable intelligence.
So why did so many people get the wrong idea? One possible explanation is that they heard it over and over again on TV.
In a new study, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting found that major news programs interviewed twice as many torture defenders as torture critics in their coverage of the Senate’s report.
The FAIR study reviewed the guests of several popular news shows in the week when the report was most prominently discussed. The surveyed programs included the five Sunday talk shows (NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, ABC’s This Week, Fox News Sunday, and CNN’s State of the Union) along with four weekday news shows (MSNBC’s Hardball, Fox’s Special Report, CNN’s Situation Room, and the PBS NewsHour).
In total, 104 guests appeared on these shows to discuss the topic, a little over half of whom expressed an opinion on torture. Out of these, 35 — two-thirds of that group — took a position supportive of torture. (This number includes a few guests who claimed to be against “torture,” but defended waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are recognized as torture under U.S. and international law.)
Only 18 guests articulated clear opposition to the CIA’s torture practices. That’s just half the number who spoke up in support. Moreover, with the exception of journalists covering the report, most of these guests were former and current government officials. Nine were from the CIA, seven of whom defended the torture program.
Many of these former officials are familiar faces who were involved in authorizing or implementing the program. They included George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove, as well as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former CIA officials Michael Hayden, Jose Rodriguez, and Bill Harlow.
Guantanamo prosecutor David Iglesias, who appeared on the PBS NewsHour, was the only former government official connected to the torture program to express opposition to it.
While the people who ordered, justified, and carried out torture were well represented in the debate over the report, advocates for the victims were rare. Joseph Margulies and Meg Satterthwaite, two lawyers representing men tortured by the CIA, were the exceptions, appearing respectively on Hardball and This Week.
Excluded entirely were representatives of human rights groups and experts on international law.
Of the politicians who were invited to appear, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 19-to-7. Sixteen of the Republicans defended torture, while just three spoke against it — including Senator James Risch. The Idaho Republican opposed releasing the report or prosecuting the torturers, but indicated that he would block the CIA from conducting similar interrogations as a member of the Intelligence Committee.
Of the seven Democrats who made appearances, four spoke against torture, while three voiced no clear opinion.
The Senate report presented a golden opportunity for the media to scrutinize the CIA’s torture practices. Instead, major outlets let torture apologists to dominate the discussion. By refusing to hold them accountable, the media has left the door open for these atrocious abuses to happen again.