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"Journalists should give readers and viewers the facts clearly and prominently without misleading balance. That’s not always easy."

Interview with Media Critic Eric Umansky

Eric Umansky used to write my favorite feature at Slate: Today’s Papers.  That feature does an excellent job of pointing out where reporters at the biggest newspapers excel and falter.

When I learned he had written this month’s Columbia Journalism Review article on the topic of media coverage of torture, I jumped at the chance to interview him.

The issue of torture is ripe for media criticism as there are some news organizations – I’m looking at you, Fox News – that report just what the Bush administration says while The Washington Post and The New York Times dig deeper. That wins them some criticism from those who prefer secrecy, but it’s important work that needs to be done. 

First, please tell us a bit about your background with the news media so readers can judge your credibility regarding these issues.

I never got formal training as a journalist, never worked at my college paper, and have never worked at a daily paper. On the plus side, I started in journalism about a decade ago as an intern as the lefty (but glossy!) Mother Jones. I was promoted to editor of the website, stuck around there for four years, then was an editor at the now deceased media criticism magazine Brill’s Content. Until last month, I wrote the Slate daily feature Today’s Papers where I summarized and critiqued the nation’s top five dailies (The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today).

How did you come to decide to write a piece examining the media's coverage of torture and abuse?

It was really the perfect intersection of my work over the past few years. I was steeped in press coverage — and doing plenty of criticism of it — through my Today’s Papers column. And apart from that, for the past year I’ve been writing almost exclusively about torture and detention issues. So looking at press coverage of torture was a natural for me — but naturally it didn’t occur to me. The wise and benevolent editors at CJR came up with the idea and approached me.

What do you think it is about the issue of torture that makes it so difficult for journalists to cover?

Well, it’s so fraught and so politicized that I think some reporters would prefer not to step on toes. Of course that’s the reality with other issues as well — abortion, for example. But covering torture has other impediments, none more so than the administration’s obfuscation.

When President Bush says the White House has never approved abusive interrogations or torture, reporters for one thing need to have to the gumption to write clearly that the facts suggest otherwise. They also need to know the facts that counter the administration’s contentions. Given how successful the White House has been in keeping details of its policies on the dark side if you will — that’s hard work. It’s also why I think intel reporters — who are steeped in this stuff — have done a better job covering torture than have political reporters.

Or is the problem less one of reporting but one of getting that reporting published?

I think there’s plenty of good reporting and much of it has been published. It’s just that there’s also been lots of ill-informed and often mushy reporting on torture.

What is it that journalists are not doing, when writing about these issues, that you think they should do?

Journalists should give readers and viewers the facts clearly and prominently without misleading balance. That’s not always easy. First of all, as I said, you need to really know the facts. You also need to have an editor write a clear strong headline and too often that’s not the case.

Not all journalists, to be sure, are doing a bad job covering this issue, right? Why don't we close by giving credit to some journalists and/or news organizations that are doing a better job than most covering this issue.

The Washington Post has done some great work. The paper’s Dana Priest deservedly won a Pulitzer for her work on it. But she’s not the only one there. Josh White — a Pentagon reporter who unfortunately didn’t make it into my piece — has also done a great job reporting on the various abuse courts martial and tracking how abuse “migrated” from Afghanistan to Gitmo to, of course, Abu Ghraib.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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