Editor’s Note: Tortured Coverage

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For a primer on how far the Fourth Estate has fallen, just tap CBS, Antonin Scalia, and YouTube into your favorite search engine. Then double-click play.

In a two-part segment that took up 30 of the network’s 60 Minutes on April 27, you can watch correspondent Lesley Stahl chill with the “brilliant,” “bold,” and “colorful” (her words) Supreme Court justice.

Scalia and Stahl stroll the rainy streets of Queens, New York, and, matching umbrellas in hand, rap about his humble upbringing. They climb the iconic steps of the court, where the 72-year-old “contrarian with a pugnacious temperament” reduces lawyers from “white-shoe law firms” to near tears. They even joke around in the halls of P.S. 13, where the future “maverick” says he “never got in trouble and got straight A’s too.” And, of course, the two spend a little face time in some set designer’s idea of a study, where the tough questions get asked.

“If someone’s in custody, as in Abu Ghraib . . . if you listen to the expression ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ doesn’t that apply?” Stahl queries.

“No, no,” Scalia replies. “Has anybody ever referred to torture as punishment? I don’t think so. What’s he punishing you for?”

Stahl: “Well, because he assumes you either committed a crime or you know something that he wants to know.”

Scalia: “It’s the latter. And when he’s hurting you in order to get information from you, you don’t say he’s punishing you. What’s he punishing you for?”

Stahl: “Because he thinks you are a terrorist and he’s going to beat the you-know-what out of you.”

Scalia: “Anyway, that’s my view. And it happens to be correct.”

Then Stahl, in a voice-over: “He’s nothing if not certain and confident. How did he get that way?”

Cut back to the puffery.

 

On April 9 ABC News reported that officials in the Bush administration, including Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, sanctioned the CIA’s torture of top al-Qaida suspects. In a subsequent interview, President Bush acknowledged that he knew about and approved “enhanced interrogation” of detainees, including simulated drowning.

As I write, subpoenas are being issued by the House Judiciary Committee, which as you read should be engaged in a series of hearings examining the treatment of military prisoners in U.S. custody. Page one headlines and a gaggle of talking heads are sure to chronicle the spectacle.

The play-by-play coverage promises to be as bloodless as recent memos unearthed at the Department of Justice: glib, equivocating documents that parse the Fifth Amendment and international law as if the fate of our nation’s integrity were a high school debate topic.

The pundits won’t bother with first-person accounts from victims of torture or detailed clinical analysis documenting the irreversible effects of sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation, and mock execution. We will not be asked to imagine our brothers, husbands, wives, and sisters stripped naked in the dark, in secret, without being charged—even though research shows that when a government allows its soldiers to violate the law, officials within its own borders are likely to follow suit.

Instead, we’ll watch as cable-friendly fascists fantasize about the sort of ticking-bomb scenarios that, even if they did happen outside the writer’s room at 24, would not be stopped by torture, which by all credible accounts does not yield reliable intelligence.

Worst of all, when culpable, highly influential political actors like Scalia smugly play pseudo-intellectual word games, the high-profile members of the press establishment who are granted access will lack the intellectual facility to challenge their illogic. Or, as in the case of Stahl, they will treat contemptible, indefensible statements as if they were an endearing personality quirk.

Buried deeper in our daily newspapers, down the dial on public TV and radio, and on the pages of independent blogs and alternative magazines, there’s laudable work that gives context to our country’s unprecedented fall and humanizes those who suffer systematic abuse or neglect. These stories of agony and injustice are upsetting. They are also essential for a healthy democracy, which is why, in the run-up to this pivotal election, we promise to showcase insightful torture coverage from around the globe at www.utne.com/torture.

It’s our sincere hope that the hearts and minds behind the sensational headlines will inspire you to demand that elected officials and political appointees be held account-able. Or, at the very least, face a few follow-up questions.