June 18, 2009 | Scripps Howard News Service

How to Crush Debate

Following the shootings of a Kansas abortion doctor and a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, two prominent New York Times columnists, Paul Krugman and Frank Rich, spoke out forcefully against those in the media who spout lies and, possibly, incite violence.

There are “lunatics” out there, Krugman wrote, and “media organizations wind up such people at their, and our, peril.” Rich warned of “toxic rhetoric” and “media demagogues,” fueling a rage that “could spiral out of control.”

So imagine my shock to see on The New Times website an item saying: “Cliff May argued that torture is justified against Muslims because they're Muslim.”

What does that even mean? That I think innocent Muslims should have their fingernails pulled out? There was not a quote or fact to back up this inflammatory allegation against me, no link to articles I've written. Why would the Times attribute to me such an outrageous opinion — without even attempting to verify it? Why would they not at least call me and ask whether I'd care to deny the charges?

To be fair, this was in a Times feature called “The Opinionator: A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web,” and this particular opinion had been gathered from Adam Serwer, writing in the American Prospect, which describes itself as “an authoritative magazine of liberal ideas.”

But to continue to be fair, the Times is the Times. Years ago when I worked at the Times — as a reporter, Washington correspondent, foreign correspondent and editor — it was understood by everyone from the lowliest interns to the loftiest editors that a serious newspaper cannot relinquish responsibility for what it puts into print simply by saying: “Whoops, sorry, we lifted that from another publication.”
I immediately wrote a note to the Times' ombudsman. He has not, so far, bothered to reply.

Adam Serwer's piece, on the American Prospect's blog, intended to take up the same theme as had Krugman and Rich. He asserted that there has been a “startling trend of right-wing violence recently.” This somehow leads to the description of my views noted above.

I wrote a note to Mark Schmitt, the American Prospect's executive editor, pointing out that I have never said anything that could remotely justify the view ascribed to me. I added that I have worked closely with Muslims — not least those in my own organization, a think tank created just after the attacks of 9/11/01. I asked Schmitt: “Are you oblivious to the possibility that telling such a lie will incite some crazy to attack me or my family?”

He replied: “We (and the Times) should have provided a link, but of course you know it was a reference to your much-discussed written comments on The Corner of April 24.”

I did not, but I looked up that post on The Corner (a blog to which I occasionally contribute) and found that I had explicitly written that I oppose torture. I had thought to add, however, that there would be those who will label as “pro-torture” anyone who dares to argue that there “may be methods of interrogation that are unpleasant but fall short of torture.”

I went on to quote Abu Zubaydah, the captured al-Qaeda terrorist who, according to the CIA memos released by the Obama administration, told his interrogators: “Brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardships.”

This struck me as a potentially life-saving insight into the thinking of militant Islamists. “Imagine an al-Qaeda member who would like to give his interrogators information, who does not want to continue fighting, who would prefer not to see more innocent people slaughtered,” I wrote. “He would need his interrogators to press him hard so he can feel that he has met his religious obligations — only then could he cooperate. “
Schmitt insisted that what I had written was clearly “referring to interrogation techniques that are widely agreed to be torture” and therefore, the magazine's “characterization of your comments is entirely appropriate.”
This is exactly the kind of irresponsible and thuggish use of media power that Krugman and Rich claim to decry. We have seen it many times before. But who would ever have expected to see it in The New York Times and The American Prospect, that “authoritative magazine of liberal ideas”?

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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