TORTURE IS TORTURE…. An important Harvard study (pdf) was released recently on how several major U.S. media outlets characterize waterboarding — based on the year and which country was utilizing the technique.

As Glenn Greenwald explained in his piece on the study’s findings, the research examined “how waterboarding has been discussed by America’s four largest newspapers over the past 100 years, and finds that the technique, almost invariably, was unequivocally referred to as ‘torture’ — until the U.S. Government began openly using it and insisting that it was not torture, at which time these newspapers obediently ceased describing it that way.”

The results were strikingly one sided. In the New York Times, when other countries waterboarded, it was labeled accurately as “torture” 85.8% of the time. And then there was a shift in the Bush/Cheney era — the NYT called “waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles” between 2002 and 2008. That’s 1.4%.

Michael Calderone followed up with the paper of record, which believes the study is “misleading,” though a Times spokesperson acknowledged political considerations.

[T]he Times acknowledged that political circumstances did play a role in the paper’s usage calls. “As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.” […]

Clearly, the Times doesn’t want to be perceived as putting its thumb on the scale on either side in the torture debate. That’s understandable, given traditional journalistic values aiming for neutrality and balance. But by not calling waterboarding torture — even though it is, and the paper itself defined it that way in the past — the Times created a factual contradiction between its newer work and its own archives.

The paper’s explanation is wholly unsatisfying. Let me see if I understand the pitch here:

1. The NYT defines waterboarding as torture, which is consistent with the law and the technique’s history.

2. The Bush/Cheney administration decides it wants a new definition of “torture.”

3. The NYT can’t “take sides” in a “political dispute,” so, in news stories, it stops defining waterboarding as torture, even if the editors/publishers know better.

In application, that’s a truly awful journalistic standard. By that reasoning, any group of political figures can dictate what professional media outlets call anything, simply by unilaterally declaring a “political dispute.”

There’s simply no reason for the New York Times to turn over its style guide to politicians — who, incidentally, were hoping to cover up apparent crimes. If waterboarding is torture — which it clearly, unambiguously is — then it doesn’t matter who’s utilizing the technique or when.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.