Product Placement, and Saving Our Lives


I want to contrast two pieces of writing by two different authors on the same subject: the effectiveness of torture in getting valuable information from detainees.

The first was written by Byron York, a National Review Online contributor who had an op-ed published today in washingtonexaminer.com. The title of the op-ed is “Did the Times Bury Its Story on Interrogations’ Effectiveness?”

Here is York’s piece, in its entirety:

If you go to Memeorandum, the most talked-about story on the Web today, or at least as of 11:20 this morning, is Peter Baker’s New York Times piece, “Banned Techniques Yielded ‘High Value Information,’ Memo Says.” The story begins:

President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.

Baker’s story attracted a lot of attention soon after the paper posted it on its Web site.  In addition to a link on Drudge, it is, according to Memeorandum, the talk of PowerLine, JustOneMinute, The Daily Dish, The Plum Line, Hot Air, Commentary, RedState, Political Punch, AmSpecBlog, and lots of other places on the Web.

In fact, it appears there is just one place you won’t find Baker’s story: the print edition of the New York Times.

I read the story on the Web last night and, going through the actual newspaper this morning, noticed that it wasn’t there.  Instead, there were a few graphs devoted to Baker’s material placed deep inside another story, “Obama Won’t Bar Inquiry, or Penalty, on Interrogations,” by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, on page A-15.

I asked Richard Stevenson, who is the Times’ deputy Washington bureau chief, what was going on. He told me Baker got the Blair information late in the day Tuesday, and there just wasn’t room for it in the paper.  “We already had three stories on this subject,” Stevenson explained, “and it was late, there was no more space to do this separately…We just didn’t have the space to put it in the print newspaper.”

The other interrogation stories the Times published in the paper were, “In Adopting Harsh Tactics, No Inquiry Into Past Use; Interrogations Based on Torture Methods Chinese Communists Used in ’50s” on the front page; “Report Gives New Detail on Interrogation Approval,” on A-14, and Stolberg’s, on A-15.

One reason Baker’s story has attracted so much attention is that it provided some balance to a number of interrogation stories we have seen in the Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.  There is a legitimate argument to be made by the defenders of the Bush administration’s interrogation program, and to see it echoed by Barack Obama’s national intelligence director is striking. My guess is that, even given the attention Baker’s story has gotten on the Web, it would have had even more impact were it the paper, as well.

Stevenson denied that there was any bias in the Times’ decision not to run the story in the paper edition.  “If your implication was there was some sort of ideological or value judgment made about the subject matter, that’s preposterous,” he told me. “It was 8:30 at night, we had a lot of stories going, a limited amount of space, and the ability to get that news into a different story.”  Stevenson stressed that the Times, after all, broke the news that all those blogs are talking about.  “We no longer think of the print paper as the sole definition of the New York Times,” he said.  “We can get a big pop on a story by putting it on the Web, faster, more completely, and with more impact.”

Nevertheless, I don’t think anyone would deny that the actual newspaper is still extremely important to the Times.  When the paper was under pressure, with a news judgment to make, the Blair material got the short end of the stick.

The second is a post by Pete Abel at The Moderate Voice, entitled “Losing Our Lives in the Process of Saving Them“:

Of the endless cascade of reports, posts, and conversations this week on recent-past U.S. torture practices, there are three that perhaps bother me more than all the rest.

The first can be found at the end of this CSM report:

Interrogators, who spoke to the [New York] Times on condition of anonymity, said they believed Zubaydah told them everything he knew before waterboarding began. They communicated this to agency higher-ups in Washington, who nonetheless insisted on the use of the practice, and asked to watch it take place.

The second is Andrew Sullivan’s spotlight on potential hypocrisy by at least one influential member of Congress, who is presumably among those “outraged” by the most recent revelations.

The third can’t be linked. It was a brief exchange I had with an old college friend Monday night — a fleeting segment from a much larger conversation about what the hell we had each been up to in the last umpteen years. A devout Catholic, this old college friend dismissed the entire torture issue as much ado about nothing.

No matter one’s religion or politics, I can’t understand how any of us can take a cavalier stance on this topic, not in the face of the flood of evidence we’ve now seen. No, I don’t want another terrorist attack. In fact, I think it’s entirely reasonable to assume no American does. But at what price are we willing to save ourselves? Where in the process of protecting America do we cross the line Jesus clearly demarcated in Luke 9:24-25?

… whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit will a person have if he gains the whole world, but destroys himself or is lost?

I think it’s pretty damn clear that line — between saving and losing our lives — was already crossed. Nor am I convinced we’ve yet done enough to “uncross” it.

I believe that my point in contrasting these two pieces is too obvious to state.

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