How ‘Both Sides’ Framing Undermines the Senate Torture Report

How ‘Both Sides’ Framing Undermines the Senate Torture Report

How ‘Both Sides’ Framing Undermines the Senate Torture Report

Eric on this week in music and theater and Reed on the false framing that is skewing the way we talk about torture.


Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection Vol. 1, 1973-1984 (eight CDs)
Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin (three CDs/one DVD)
The Complete Welcome Back, Kotter and WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD
New James Brown and Bob Marley concerts on DVD and Blu-ray, respectively
Side Show on Broadway

Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings released Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection Vol. 1 1973-1984, which, as the good people at Columbia put it, is a boxed set comprised of remastered editions of the first seven albums recorded and released by Bruce Springsteen for Columbia Records between 1973 and 1984. All of the albums are newly remastered (five for the first time ever on CD) and all seven are making their remastered debut on vinyl. The seven albums are recreations of their original packaging and the set is accompanied by a 60-page book featuring photos, memorabilia and original press clippings from Springsteen's first decade as a recording artist. Bob Ludwig, working with Springsteen and longtime engineer Toby Scott, has remastered these albums, all newly transferred from the original analogue masters using the Plangent Process playback system.

I assume everyone who wants these albums already has them. And many of us have the remastered Born to Run and Darkness from those box sets. So the question this box set asks, is how different are the remasters from the originals. The answer is amazingly so. It’s not as if you’ve never heard The River or The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle before, but you’ve never heard them like this. The difference is stunning, even shocking. Usually I can work with Bruce on, but these remasters make that impossible, demanding attention, showing me new things in songs I’ve heard a billion times. And the booklet is really fun too, with lots of clips from days of yore. So, yes, I’d say it’s worth it and you’ll appreciate your investment.

So Leonard Cohen’s artistic rebirth is one of the more inspiring stories of my lifetime and one I feel genuinely privileged to have been alive to witness. I’ve been teaching a class where we are studying his lyrics (together with those of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell), and I do think he is unequaled as a lyricist and, at 80, a wonder of this world. There’s been a lot of product coming out of Leonard’s tours of the past few years. This new collection, recorded at Dublin's O2 Arena in September 2013, is the most complete, stretching over three CDs and a single DVD or Blu-ray. If you’ve not seen the tour, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It has three hours of music including bonus live tracks recorded in Canada in 2013 on the video. The concerts themselves were as close as I can remember to a religious experience as an adult. You need the actual Leonard Cohen for that, but this is, I suppose, as close as you’re going to get.

I was exactly the right age for Welcome Back, Kotter, which was funny, charming and (mostly) socially progressive in a class-based way that was unusual for ’70s television. Now, thanks to our friends at Shout! Factory, we’ve got 2,280 minutes on sixteen discs of Sweathog mayhem, cheap one-liners and a really young John Travolta. Sure it’s silly but there’s nothing really on television these days anyway, once you get past premium cable, so what the hell?

Many people a little younger than myself feel the same way about WKRP In Cincinnati, which Shout! Factory has also made available as a complete series that comes in at 2,250 minutes on thirteen discs. The show is silly beyond words, but thanks to the patience and investment by Shout!, almost all of the original music for the show has been cleared. Loni Anderson got her start on this show, so I don’t know if that’s a recommendation, but it too, has its charms, to say nothing of a soundtrack that includes Bruce, the Stones, the Dead, Elvis Costello, The Cars, Wings and The Police, which brings back the time in happy, non-Reaganite way. (See Rich Gallagher’s letter for another excellent sitcom recommendation below.)

Shout! has also put out an extended edition of the DVD of the famous James Brown

Live at the Boston Garden: April 5, 1968 that has historically been credited with keeping the peace in Boston on the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination. It’s an extraordinary document and more than a little spooky.  It’s over two hours and includes and includes speeches by James Brown, Boston City Councilmember Tom Atkins and Boston Mayor Kevin White, as well as performances by Marva Whitney and Bobby Byrd. It’s not something I’d want to watch more than once, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. It was filmed in black and white and sound quality is iffy at best. Finally, Eagle Rock Entertainment has released a DVD of a Rockpalast, taping of a show from Bob Marley’s final tour in Dortmund’s Westfalenhalle in 1980. Marley already had cancer but he didn’t know it. I found this show really depressing, but it’s got all the hits. It’s called Uprising Live!, as that album had just been released.

Also, I saw Side Show at the St. James Theatre last week. The musical by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, about conjoined twins based on the lives of the real-life twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who grew to being vaudeville stars in the 1930s Born in England, they were sold off to a traveling freak show before being discovered by an on-the-make talent scout, and lots of stuff happens before they achieve stardom, but not, alas happiness.

Get it? Actually, it was pretty great, as all the reviews have pretty much agreed. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett as the twins are breathtakingly great and the freak-show cast, a scary but compelling cast of cast-offs as you’ll ever see. Pretty great music, too, albeit with a little filler.

Get it? Actually, it was pretty great, as all the reviews have pretty much agreed. 

The annual John Lennon tribute I mentioned last Friday night. I have no review of it, but I did want, again, to mention the excellent cause it benefitted: The Theater, which you can learn more about if you go to  Also, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is showing the second Eric Rohmer re-release of the season and it’s the delightful A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver, 1994)  which is not my favorite of  Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons.” That would be  A Summer’s Tale (1996), but  A Tale of Springtime (1990) and Autumn Tale (1998), are also among my favorite films of all time. The new print, which I assume will shortly be on DVD, Blu-ray, etc,  is gorgeous.

And a happy 80th birthday to Ruth Alterman!

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

How “Both Sides” Framing Undermines the Senate Torture Report
by Reed Richardson

After several years and numerous bureaucratic roadblocks, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence finally published a—shortened, partially redacted—report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program during the years after 9/11. Though it amounts to less than 20 percent of the actual 6,000-page investigation, the 528-page executive summary still presents an exhaustive, damning indictment of our democracy sacrificing its principles. Along with previously unknown examples of detainee torture and abuse by the CIA, there’s also overwhelming evidence of rampant misinformation if not outright deception about the torture program on the part of the agency. No doubt, the actions the report describes, done in our name, will forever be a stain our country’s legacy.

Nevertheless, as laudable as this report is in terms of transparency, it is still severely compromised in terms of actual accountability. With no real examination of the culpability of the Bush White House in crafting the torture policy and no political will to prosecute the outrageous wrongdoing of those who carried it out, there’s little actual precedent here to dissuade future (or current) administrations from the same flawed, moral calculus on torture’s acceptability. But the Senate probe’s narrow, self-limiting scope and the Obama administration’s half-hearted commitment to justice, respectively, aren’t the only things to blame for this. The establishment media has also played a key role in undermining even this feeble attempt at reckoning with our torture era.

It’s done this by once again letting the architects and apologists for the CIA’s torture program redefine the issue into a contrived “debate” about its efficacy. This has been the right-wing’s modus operandi for years—co-opt the press into ignoring the universal moral repugnance of torture in favor of a narrow, Machiavellian parsing of whether or not it produces actionable intelligence. Admittedly, the latter argument is much more comfortable terrain for the media, since it offers a convenient neutral ground from which to report (i.e., “senior administration officials say torture works, critics say it doesn’t…”). This wishy-washy “both sides” stance does little for readers even when discussing mundane policy debates, but it does a real disservice to the public when the subject matter involves defining down a supposedly bedrock American principle via rhetorical dissembling.

In fact, pretty much since its existence was revealed the CIA’s interrogation and detention program has enjoyed broad support inside the Beltway. Pushback from an incurious and submissive Washington press corps was notably rare when Bush was in office; many just dutifully repeated his unsubstantiated claims while adopting his administration’s Orwellian euphemism for the word torture. (To be fair, a few intrepid national security reporters did a commendable job in puncturing the veil of secrecy and learning the truth.) And to this day, the DC media establishment still serves up an all-you-can-stomach buffet of moral relativism, obsessive fear-mongering, and, courtesy of Fox News, good old-fashioned American jingoism.

One of the loudest of these Beltway cheerleaders, though, has been former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen. Over the past few years, he has essentially gone all in on torture, writing a fawning book on the CIA’s interrogation program and occasionally stepping into the Post’s op-ed breach whenever he felt the need to push what are, in fact, inaccurate anecdotes about thwarted terror plots. Naturally, the publication of a massively detailed investigation into the CIA’s torture program—one that would seriously threaten his worldview—set him off. And so, there was Thiessen on the eve of the Senate report’s release this week, pre-emptively attacking the report and defending the CIA with a new Post column about how waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammad led the CIA to target Adnan el Shukrijumah, an Al Qaeda commander (who happened to be killed just this past weekend by Pakistani forces). It almost goes without saying, but, yes, Thiessen’s argument falls apart in the face of the SSCI report’s actual findings on Shukrijumah, which start on page 358.

OK, this kind of pushback was to be expected. Normalizing torture has literally been Thiessen’s meal ticket, and he conveniently occupies one of several Post columnist slots apparently reserved for former Bush staffers. But he was by no means was alone in his campaign. In fact, as the SSCI report’s release drew nigh, a critical mass of former CIA and top-level Bush administration officials suddenly re-emerged across the media landscape. Many of the same names the country learned not to trust thanks to little things like chimerical WMD evidence and the disastrous Iraq War got a warm welcome back to the mainstream media’s op-ed pages and news shows to defend the agency’s torture program. (Torture and the Iraq War are not unrelated.)

Indeed, everyone, was rallying ’round the CIA’s waterboards, it seemed. There was George Bush, on CNN; Dick Cheney, in The New York Times; the CIA officer who destroyed the videotapes of agency torture, in The Washington Post; and don’t forget former CIA director Michael Hayden, in The Wall Street Journal and on Morning Joe and on Face the Nation and on NBC Nightly News and probably on a random street corner in Washington right this minute, hectoring passersby about how our nation’s security necessitated odious things like rectal feeding. The latter’s all-out enthusiasm for rebutting the Senate report finally made perfect sense once you saw its 37-page Appendix 3, which was solely dedicated to cataloguing the many times Hayden lied to Congress.

In this era of instant oppo research, it wasn’t a great shock to learn that these torture apologists even started their own, clumsily-named rebuttal website: But after perusing the site, where it lists the dozens of media platforms these folks have graced in the past few days to attack the report, you have to wonder why they bothered. With a compliant media seeking narrative “balance,” they’ve certainly had no trouble finding opportunities to amplify their counter-programming.

That the press would end up enabling these attacks on the torture report isn’t that unexpected, sadly. That’s because the Senate report found the media was an all too willing conduit for a CIA propaganda campaign back when the torture program was active. Whether it was selectively leaking classified info to gin up sympathy for the agency or feeding the media made-up terror plots to justify the inhumane treatment of the detainees, the CIA clearly played the mainstream press. And the mainstream press mostly played along, whether by passing along inaccurate claims of torture’s success or repeating false chronologies to support those claims. (Two specific examples of this cited in the Senate’s report involve The New York Times and Dateline NBC.) At times, the media acted more like an extension of the agency’s Office of Public Affairs than a watchdog of the government.

Not surprisingly, these embarrassing revelations didn’t get much airtime within the mainstream media itself. CNN’s “top takeaways” from the torture report, for example, completely ignored the press’s often subservient relationship with the CIA. But to dwell merely on the unspeakable horrors inflicted upon detainees—many of whom were totally innocent—by our government is to miss the other half of the torture story. That’s the half that more directly impacts our democracy going forward, since the Senate’s report also lays bare just how corrupt and broken our system of oversight and transparency is. When CIA officials can privately speak of the “Glomar figleaf” they used to uniformly stonewall every FOIA request and when they can joke to one another about the hypocrisy of proclaiming everything a state secret while simultaneously “planning to reveal darn near the entire [torture] program” to friendly reporters, it’s clear there’s bad faith on top of immoral policy. Recognizing this matters. A lot. Because there’s no duty on the part of the press to tell both sides of the story if one side is merely trying to enlist the press into spreading lies and misinformation on its behalf. To be complicit in these torture apologist’s propaganda efforts even after their deceit has been revealed transcends run-of-the-mill false equivalence; it’s tantamount to journalistic malpractice.

That’s why any self-congratulation over what is, at best, a piecemeal attempt at reconciling our nation’s recent torture regime should be avoided. We’ve put no real, lasting mechanisms in place to prevent it from happening again precisely because we haven’t fully learned the painful lessons of how it happened the first time. One interesting solution came from ACLU Director Anthony Romero, who argued in a New York Times editorial that Obama should pre-emptively pardon everyone involved in approving and executing the CIA’s torture program—including former President Bush—as a way to emphasize torture's illegality. Of course, such a move would unleash a vitriolic outpouring of right-wing outrage so intense it would make impeachment hearings look like a Sunday picnic. What’s more, the idea would be a non-starter with a president whose one-way vision of justice only looks forward and not backward. But, as a thought experiment, it’s worth considering, if only to reinforce the moral culpability of everyone involved in enabling torture in our name. And as long as we’re handing out imaginary pardons for that, we should save one for the media too. 

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich

The mail:
Rich Gallagher
Fishkill, NY

Dear Eric, I haven't written to you in some time, but I'd like to make a recommendation for a holiday season DVD box set. I know it's from before you were born, but "Sgt. Bilko – The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series" was a groundbreaking television program which won three consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Writing (and 8 Emmy Awards in all). You can read my review here:

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