We planned our Nieman Watchdog series on torture before President Obama released four secret memos that spelled out what techniques interrogators could use, thereby unleashing furious public reaction and an enormous wave of news and editorial page coverage.
Now it seems that what we had in mind—keeping Bush administration torture and other abuses of power alive in the press—is almost redundant. For the moment, the drive for more coverage looks impossible to kill or even slow down.
Leading the way is the New York Times with an April 22 story that lays out in rich detail how the torture got started. “The process was ‘a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm,’ a former C.I.A. official said,” and the lengthy Times story proves that to be an understatement.
And an example of editorial page reaction is this one, also from April 22, in the Des Moines Register, calling for prosecution:
That shameful chapter should not be compounded by pretending it’s enough to have released information about another breach of human decency and then move on. A thorough investigation must determine who was responsible, and they should be prosecuted as warranted.
The question at this point is whether coverage and concern has reached a critical mass so that they can’t be stopped or whether, despite the white heat of the moment, the story will fade after a while.
The main forces to keep the story alive—to get to the bottom of what happened and to take action—are the legal justice system and Congress. In both, especially Congress, there will be resistance to a serious investigation.
The role of the press changes slightly now. It needs to continue reporting the story of torture and other Bush administration abuses, of course. And it also needs to cover how the White House, Justice Department and Congress moves on the torture story, day by day.