I just sent this e-mail to the Readers’ Rep. I quoted liberally from a comment from Beldar, and I thank him for crystallizing the issue so clearly.
This isn’t a request for a correction. It’s just a complaint.
Yesterday Tim Rutten said:
Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Vice President Dick Cheney was addressing the meat-eaters at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He told them that he was glad the administration had tortured people and that he’d do it again: “Would I support those same decisions again today? You’re damn right I would.”
I looked up the transcript and the only mention Cheney made of torture was this:
The United States is a country that takes human rights seriously. We do not torture — it’s against our laws and against our values. We’re proud of our country and what it stands for.
One of my commenters expressed the problem this way:
In this issue, definitions are important. The issue cannot be meaningfully or honestly discussed without acknowledging that there are fundamental underlying disputes about what the meaning of “torture” is. Even when there are international agreements, statutes, or regulations that purport to provide definitions, the application of those definitions to specific practices can still be grounds for legitimate controversy. Sometimes even the practice itself is poorly defined: I’m reasonably sure that the degree of discomfort and inherent risk of permanent injury can be ratcheted up or down very substantially within the confines of what you and others are referring to here as “waterboarding,” and those differences may be hugely significant from the subject’s point of view — being “dunked” may not equate at all to being effectively drowned and then artificially resuscitated.
Rutten’s piece obscures all this. One in his position of responsibility, with his unarguable exposure to the issues, cannot plausibly claim to have done so innocently. His more sophisticated readers (which probably include most readers and commenters here) probably would guess that when Rutten writes (in an op-ed) that “[Cheney] told [his audience] that he was glad the administration had tortured people and that he’d do it again,” without using quotation marks himself, that Rutten’s own strong opinions have already been factored into his choice of language — and those readers are unlikely to be deceived, regardless of whether they approve and agree with Rutten’s value judgments and hidden spin.
But some substantial number of Rutten’s readers aren’t “clever” enough to guess that Rutten feels licensed, in an op-ed, to put words into a political foe’s mouth that are quite literally the opposite of the words the foe actually used. Rutten knew, or certainly should have known, that some readers would take him literally. The LAT’s editors knew, or certainly should have known, that some readers would take him literally.
I know better than to ask for a correction. You won’t give one, and the process of asking for one would simply be an exercise in frustration.
But I’ll tell you this; when you sit around scratching your head wondering why some people think your paper is dishonest, please go back and re-read this e-mail. As my commenter notes, Rutten and his editors obviously knew that some readers would be misled by his wording. Yet they deliberately moved ahead with his column as worded, knowing full well that some readers would believe Cheney had explicitly boasted of torturing terrorism suspects — when Cheney had said the exact opposite.
If your paper truly cared about whether your readers were misled, it would not have printed Rutten’s column with this misleading language.
Thanks again to Beldar.