Friday, July 3, 2009

NPR Ombudsman Continues to Defend NPR's Policy of not Using the Word "Torture"

I have been keeping an eye on an interesting back and forth that has been going on over the last week between the Ombudsman for National Public Radio, Alicia Shepard and journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Shepard has been receiving emails from listeners of NPR about their policy of not using the word "torture" in describing waterboarding and other techniques that were used during the interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody. (Instead, NPR opts to use the terms "harsh interrogation tactics" and "enhanced interrogation techniques".)

In response to these letters from viewers, Shepard wrote a piece in order to address these concerns. From her article:

How should NPR describe the tactics used to coerce information out of terrorism suspects?

Ted Koppel, the former ABC Nightline host and commentator on Talk of the Nation, said in May that the U.S. should "define it [torture] as being any technique or practice which, when applied to an American prisoner in some other country or captured by some other entity, that we would object to. If we object to it being done to an American, then I think it's t"

That seems clear enough, but the problem is that the word torture is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that torture is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama have insisted that the United States does not use torture. Officials during the Bush administration acknowledged the use of what they called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Also, not all interrogation could be classified as torture. Sleep deprivation, nudity and facial slaps are different from, say, pouring water on a cloth over someone's face for 20 to 40 seconds to create the sensation of drowning -- a practice known as waterboarding.


It's a no-win case for journalists. If journalists use the words "harsh interrogation techniques," they can be seen as siding with the White House and the language that some U.S. officials, particularly in the Bush administration, prefer. If journalists use the word "torture," then they can be accused of siding with those who are particularly and visibly still angry at the previous administration.

There has been no clear consensus on what constitutes torture, noted Brian Duffy, NPR's former managing editor in late April.


To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the characterization. For example, reporters could say that the U.S. military poured water down a detainee's mouth and nostrils for 40 seconds. Or they could detail such self-explanatory techniques as forcing detainees into cramped confines crawling with insects, or forced to stand for hours along side a wall.

A basic rule of vivid writing is: "Show, Don't Tell." An excellent example of using facts rather than coded language was a 2005 piece by former NPR reporter John McChesney. It gave meticulous details of tactics used against an Iraqi detainee at Abu Graib who later died.

Glenn Greenwald, who has written extensively about the issue of torture and the media coverage that surrounds the debate, responded to Shepard's piece with an entry of his own. Greenwald writes:

She describes Koppel’s standard as "clear enough" -- and it is. So why doesn’t NPR use that standard? Because -- she argues -- "the word torture is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that torture is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed."

So what? How does the fact that torture is illegal mean that NPR shouldn’t describe as "torture" tactics which -- when used against Americans -- the U.S. government has long condemned as "torture"? Her objection to Koppel’s very sensible standard is a total non-sequitur. How does the criminality of torture serve as an argument against what Koppel advocated? It doesn't. She’s just in defend-NPR-at-any-cost mode and wants to justify its refusal to use the word "torture," and Koppel’s standard would compel the opposite conclusion, because so many of the tactics that were authorized by Bush were ones the U.S. -- and the rest of the civilized world -- have always called "torture."


The U.S. has prosecuted those acts as torture in the past. Multiple media outlets and even the U.S. Government have routinely described those acts as “torture” when used against Americans, rather than by Americans. The tactics are ones we copied from manuals designed to inure our own troops to the torture techniques used by some of the world’s worst tyrants. They resulted in numerous deaths. Until the Bush administration decided to call it something other than "torture" so that they could do it, nobody had any questions about whether this was "torture."

If there are tactics about which there is a reasonable dispute, then those need not be called torture by NPR. But many of the tactics that were authorized are "torture" in every sense of the word.


Here’s the nub of the matter – the crux of journalistic decay in America. Who cares if NPR is "seen" as siding with the White House or its critics? How it is perceived -- and who it angers -- should have nothing to do with how it reports. Its reporting should be guided by the truth, by verifiable facts, and by the objective meaning of words [notably, NPR's excuse -- "the Right will get angry at us if we call it 'torture'" -- is identical to The Washington Post's excuse for why they stopped calling Dan Froomkin a reporter (it angers the Right); it's amazing how much The Liberal Media makes editorial decisions based on a desire to please the Right].

Also, note that Shepard explicitly admits that, with its language choice, NPR has opted to be "seen siding with the White House and the language that some U.S. officials, particularly in the Bush administration, prefer." That, too, is an odd choice for a supposedly Liberal Media outlet. And note her snide and revealing assumption -- conventional wisdom among the establishment media -- that the only people who want these tactics to be called "torture" are those "who are particularly and visibly still angry at the previous administration" (or, as David Ignatius put it, "liberal score-settlers").

Greenwald then extended an interview request to Shepard so that the two could discuss the issue on Salon Radio. Shepard declined the request saying that she didn't want to get into a "shouting match". Instead, Shepard has gone on a couple of NPR shows to discuss and defend her article. Here is an audio clip of her on "On The Media" offering some of the same justification:

In response Greenwald wrote another piece highlighting the fact that Shepard had declined the interview request, pointing out that none of his interviews could be categorized as a "shouting match", and further criticizing her position. That entry resulted in this wacky email exchange between NPR's Senior Manager of Media Relations, Anna Christopher, and Glenn:

E-mail from Anna Christopher to GG:


I just saw your most recent column, criticizing Lisa [sic] Shepard for declining your interview request. Could you please give me a call when you have a chance?

If you or your interns want to make a request to interview NPR staff, that goes through me. I would have been able to tell your intern – who so tenaciously pursued her last week – that Lisa was on vacation and unreachable until Thursday. She didn’t ignore your request. And the last time I checked, requests are just that – requests. Not demands. Able to be accepted or declined.

Thank you,


Anna Christopher | Senior Manager, Media Relations

* * * * *

Reply from GG to Anna Christopher:

Anna - You apparently didn't read the column very carefully. We were told by someone from NPR -- Anna Tauzin -- that Alicia Shepard was [out of the office] last week and would therefore respond to the interview request by Monday. That's exactly what I wrote today. Tauzin did authorize us to say: "We were told by NPR that the Ombudsman is out of the office this week and her office will get back to us by Monday with a response." That's exactly what I wrote.

I didn't say she ignored my request, so why would you deny that she did? In fact, I said the opposite: that she responded to the request by refusing to be interviewed.

If there are internal NPR structures about who has what responsibilities, that's up to NPR to make clear. Tauzin never once said it was you who had to be contacted for the interview request. She was more than willing to convey the request to Shepard, and the Salon intern then spoke with Shepard herself yesterday.

I didn't suggest that Shepard broke the law by refusing to be interviewed by me -- only that people like her who opine pedantically on controversial matters have an ethical obligation to engage critics of their views.

If you'd still like to talk, let me know and I'll give you a call -

Glenn Greenwald

* * * * *

No further reply received from NPR.

In listening to Shepard's responses and her other appearance on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" yesterday, she continues to assert that this is a political debate and that NPR should not be taking sides in this debate by labeling tactics such as waterboarding, as torture. This is an important point in her defense and in journalism today as a whole. Shepard appears to view objectivity as presenting both sides of a debate and letting the viewers/listeners decide for themselves what is true. This should not be the role of journalists whose job it is to collect facts on a story and then present these facts regardless of who it offends or how they will be "perceived" by one side of the debate.

Objectivity is not saying "while one side of the debate claims that 2 plus 2 equals four, others are arguing that 2 plus 2 actually equals five." The role of journalism is to assert that it is an undeniable fact that 2 plus 2 equals four and that the people who disputing this fact have no basis for doing so. In this example above, if one presents both "sides" of this story, it gives equal validation to both arguments regardless of the indisputable fact that 2 plus 2 really does equal four. There can be no debate over this so why should it be the role of a journalist to pretend like there is one?

Similarly, just because the Bush Administration claims that waterboarding, a tactic which they approved and used on detainees, does not constitute torture does not automatically make it so. I am glad that Greenwald pointed out an exchange that happened on the Daily Show back in 2004 which illustrates this quite well:

Stewart: Here's what puzzles me most, Rob. John Kerry's record in Vietnam is pretty much right there in the official records of the U.S. military, and hasn't been disputed for 35 years.
Corddry: That's right, Jon, and that's certainly the spin you'll be hearing coming from the Kerry campaign over the next few days.
Stewart: That's not a spin thing, that's a fact. That's established.
Corddry: Exactly, Jon, and that established, incontrovertible fact is one side of the story.
Stewart: But isn't that the end of the story? I mean, you've seen the records, haven't you? What's your opinion?
Corddry: I'm sorry, "my opinion"? I don't have opinions. I'm a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called "objectivity"—might want to look it up some day.
Stewart: Doesn't objectivity mean objectively weighing the evidence, and calling out what's credible and what isn't?
Corddry: Whoa-ho! Sounds like someone wants the media to act as a filter! Listen, buddy: Not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.

Without objective analysis of facts and evidence by journalists, they merely become stenographers who repeat what they hear no matter the validity of the claims. Under this policy, all one side would need to do would be to lie, assert the lies as fact, and get them out into the media to make their claims look like they have credibility. As Judith Miller knows all too well, this is probably not the best strategy.

Alicia Shepard's defense of the official NPR policy is a prime example of what is wrong with the so-called "mainstream media" in today's country and it shows just have far journalistic integrity has slipped over the years. In the "Talk of the Nation" segment she specifically states that in the discussion surrounding torture the Bush Administration does "have a different side. Whether it is to dupe people or not, again, the role of a journalist is to put that information out there..." So according to Shepard, even if government officials are lying or trying to "dupe" people, it is the "role of journalists" to put that false message out to the public without any investigation into the validity of the claims so the public can draw their own conclusions.

If anyone is still wondering how the media could have provided us with coverage that helped lead us into the Iraq War, this is a prime exhibit of the mindset that allows for the media to uncritically report facetious claims.

1 comment:

libhom said...

NPR is a kinder and gentler version of rightist talk radio.