Media Matters: Torture, handshakes, and Pulitzers, oh my!

For most rational human beings, even the notion of torture is bone-chilling. Media conservatives, on the other hand, apparently find it hilarious. Following President Obama's release of four previously classified Justice Department memos that had authorized the use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees -- including “stress positions,” “cramped confinement,” “sleep deprivation,” and “the waterboard” -- numerous conservatives in the media have downplayed, mocked, and jeered the notion that those practices constitute torture. Hard to believe?

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Apparently, torture is friggin' hilarious to media conservatives

For most rational human beings, even the notion of torture is bone-chilling. Media conservatives, on the other hand, apparently find it hilarious. Following President Obama's release of four previously classified Justice Department memos that had authorized the use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees -- including “stress positions,” “cramped confinement,” “sleep deprivation,” and “the waterboard” -- numerous conservatives in the media have downplayed, mocked, and jeered the notion that those practices constitute torture. Hard to believe? Here are just a few of the many examples:

  • Conservative leader and radio host Rush Limbaugh asserted, “If you look at what we are calling torture, you have to laugh,” said that “if somebody can be water-tortured six times a day, then it isn't torture,” and claimed that “appeasers” have “water[ed] down” definition of torture like “NOW gang” did with definition of domestic violence.
  • Radio host G. Gordon Liddy compared the proposed technique of placing a detainee who “appears to have a fear of insects” in “a cramped confinement box with an insect” to his appearance on a game show, stating, “I went through worse on Fear Factor.”
  • Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee mocked the same technique: “Look, I've been in some hotels where there were more bugs than these guys faced.” Huckabee went on to state that under the Obama administration, “We're going to talk to them, we're going to have a nice conversation, we're going to invite them down for some tea and crumpets.” Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson replied, “That usually works with your kids, too, right? When they're in trouble for something, they just tell you everything.” To which her co-host Steve Doocy joked, “Mr. Moussaoui, it's time for you over in the time-out chair.”
  • To buttress his support of torture, Fox News' resident conspiracy-theorist-in-chief Glenn Beck aired a clip from Fox's 24.

When they weren't bowled over with laughter, many media conservatives were serving up the dubious claim that harsh interrogation techniques used on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed “stopped an attack on the Library Tower in Los Angeles.” The claim conflicts with the chronology of events put forth on multiple occasions by the Bush administration. Indeed, the Bush administration said that the Library Tower attack was thwarted in February 2002 -- more than a year before Mohammed was captured in March 2003. Facts be damned, Fox News and others pressed forward with the story repeatedly. Typifying the use of this story, Sean Hannity claimed this week that enhanced interrogation techniques “saved an American city, Los Angeles.”

The hysterical nature of coverage surrounding the torture issue by conservatives didn't reach everyone in the media. This week, Fox News' Shepard Smith stood out among his colleagues at the conservative news network when he said of torture, “We are staring into an abyss and it's staring back at us, and we don't do it. We are America.”

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I'm sorry “diplomacy” isn't in our vocabulary (as well as “consistency” and “truth” )

This week, media conservatives went into a frenzy over Obama's handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during the Summit of the Americas on April 17. For example, Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich asked of the handshake, "[W]hat signal does it send to other dictators?" adding that “it sends a very sad signal about human rights around the world.” Not to be outdone, a Fox News military analyst said Obama and Chavez were “fist bumping and making lovey dovey,” and CNBC's Larry Kudlow opined about Obama and Chavez's "Boyz N The Hood handshake."

Numerous conservative media figures claimed that Obama's actions at the Americas summit showed “weakness.” If that wasn't enough, some dived off the deep end altogether. Limbaugh asked, “Do you realize that Obama and Chavez have more in common than they do not?” while Hannity wondered aloud whether Obama “even likes” America, since he “has so completely condemned his own country.” And Hannity was hardly alone in his ridiculous characterization that Obama was “palling around” with Chavez.

Interestingly enough, a Media Matters search of the Nexis database found no examples in 2002 of Fox News personalities criticizing President Bush's handshake with Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov, which took place during a White House photo op in March of that year. According to a State Department report issued prior to that photo op, Karimov was “chosen president in a 1991 election that most observers considered neither free nor fair,” “was elected to a second term in January 2000 against token opposition with 92.5 percent of the vote under conditions that were neither free nor fair,” and his "[g]overnment's human rights record remained very poor." Indeed, according to the report, Uzbekistan's “security forces committed a number of killings of prisoners in custody” and “routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions.”

Fox front man Bill O'Reilly was beside himself over the handshake, indignantly claiming that former President Richard Nixon never met with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Perhaps O'Reilly would benefit from a refresher in Political History 101, because it's a well-established fact that Nixon met with Mao in 1972, a point Keith Olbermann drove home in naming O'Reilly “Worst Person” on Thursday for his historically challenged comment.

Pay no attention to the Pulitzer behind the curtain

A year ago this week, The New York Times published an explosive story by investigative reporter David Barstow detailing the hidden ties between numerous media military analysts, the Pentagon, and defense contractors. Media Matters subsequently released an exhaustive report that found that between January 1, 2002, and May 13, 2008, the analysts named in the Times report appeared or were quoted more than 4,500 times by news outlets, including more than 600 appearances by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey alone on NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC.

In a follow-up article published last November, Barstow focused on McCaffrey's ties to contractors and appearances on the various NBC channels. NBC News president Steve Capus -- the same Steve Capus who extolled the virtues of “responsibility,” “trust,” and “doing what's right” in the wake of the Imus scandal -- responded by contending McCaffrey need not follow NBC's conflict-of-interest rules because he's a “consultant.”

So, when news broke this week that The New York Times had won five Pulitzers, one going to Barstow for the military media analysts story, which award do you think NBC and MSNBC went out of its way to avoid noting in reports on the Times' success? Bingo ... Barstow's honor.

On the April 20 edition of NBC's Nightly News, reporting on the awarding of the Pulitzers earlier that day, anchor Brian Williams stated that "The New York Times led the way with five, including awards for breaking news and international reporting." But Williams did not note that Barstow was awarded a Pulitzer or the story for which he was awarded the honor.

MSNBC didn't fare much better, airing numerous reports on the Times' honors -- in some cases describing what the individual Pulitzers were awarded for -- but repeatedly failing to single out Barstow's success.

Media Matters has repeatedly documented the unwillingness of the major broadcast networks, including NBC, to report on Barstow's April 20, 2008, Times article. Moreover, NBC joined ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC in reportedly declining to participate in a segment based on Barstow's article that aired on the April 24, 2008, edition of PBS' NewsHour.

Blame Obama for bears, credit tea parties for bulls

For weeks, it's been the same story over at Fox News: When the stock market declines, regardless of what the cause or causes may be, blame Obama. So, with the market rebounding over the past six weeks and the Dow up 24 percent, you'd think that Obama would get the credit. After all, if his actions day-to-day can cause a decline, the converse must also be true, that his actions day-to-day can make the market rebound. Well, we all know what happens when we make assumptions, especially about Fox News.

Last weekend on Fox News' Bulls & Bears, host Brenda Buttner led a discussion on the market's rise with an on-screen caption describing the segment's topic as "Stocks rally as 'tea parties' catch fire; coincidence?" In a post to his Twitter profile, Fox News' Eric Bolling described criticism from Media Matters over the segment as "Liberal blogs got their panties in a wad over our Bulls and Bears show." Way to stay classy, Bolling.

Be sure to visit FinancialMediaMatters.org for the latest on those who report on the financial industry as well as those who report on labor, business, economic, and other fiscal matters.

This Week's Media Columns

This week, Media Matters Senior Fellow Jamison Foser takes a look at gaps in the Right's “banana republic” rhetoric.

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This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Karl Frisch, a Senior Fellow at Media Matters. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his regular weekly columns by email.