The ‘T’ word

torture_protest.jpg

Catching up.

When NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard was on Midmorning a few weeks ago, she said the Public Radio audience was angry that NPR won’t call waterboarding torture. She said she’d have an article about that by the end of the day, but she didn’t and I forgot to check.

She explained the policy last week:


… 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.

That earned over 400 comments, most of which did not agree with Shepard. She wrote a follow-up post yesterday, noting that she brought the audience concerns to the editors and that NPR is apparently resolute on the matter:


One can disagree strongly with those beliefs and their actions. But they are due some respect for their views, which are shared by a portion of the American public. So, it is not an open-and-shut case that everyone believes waterboarding to be torture. Many in NPR’s audience obviously believe it is, but others do not.

The main argument of my column was that NPR should describe waterboarding rather than use coded language to characterize it. Another alternative is to quote responsible officials who have described it as torture, for example President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Media critic Dan Kennedy, who writes Media Nation, took Shepard to task last week for “getting it so wrong.”


Perhaps NPR can eschew the T-word and instead describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”

To which, he says, Shepard responded…


I’m not trying to say what is and is not torture, but is every abuse classified as torture now or are there degrees? When a police officer throws a suspect to the ground and handcuffs them, is that torture or simply abuse?

And to which he — Kennedy — responded today:


As John McCain and others have pointed out, the United States executed several Japanese military officers for waterboarding American prisoners of war after World War II. And as I wrote last week, if NPR really can’t bring itself to use the T-word, perhaps it can describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”

So yes, if I were an editor at the Boston Globe, you’re damn right I would refer to waterboarding as torture. That seems about as solid as referring to oil as a fossil fuel, or baseball as a sport. By eschewing the term “torture” to describe a practice that the entire international community regards as such, NPR is not being neutral. Rather, it is embracing a euphemism that places the network squarely on the side of the torturers and their enablers.

NPR should not use enhanced interrogation techniques on the English language.

On Midmorning, Shepard said she’s not just NPR’s omudsman, she is “the ombudsman for Public Radio,” which seemed to be news to the people at MPR News I talked to.

So, is there an MPR policy preventing reporters and hosts from using torture instead of waterboarding? No.

FYI, Ms. Shepard will be on Talk of the Nation on Thursday at 1:40 p.m. (CT) to talk about the issue.

(Photo: Getty Images)

  • kennedy

    “Torture” is general term. “Waterboarding” is descriptive, accurate, and does not preclude it being torture.

    Lets look at the other side. Is it more accurate to say that a hostage has been murdered or decapitated? Both can be true, but it is more accurate and informative for reports to use the latter term.

  • Bob Collins

    I wouldn’t say “murdered” because that’s a legal finding. I’d say he was “killed.” But the problem with that is you have to say he was decapitated because it’s part of the 5Ws/1H of journalism (Who, what, why, when, where, how)

  • Paul

    Sheesh, no wonder you guy can’t get your heads around torture. Any deliberate decapitation of a hostage is murder, that’s no more a legal finding that describing a bank robbery as a robbery.

    All I can gather from this discussion is that there are some people at NPR that have a palpable fear of telling the truth. The legal consensus is that waterboarding is torture. The question is why?

  • bob

    NPR’s position is shameful, and it’s sad to see how Shepard is contorting herself on this. Equating the cops putting the cuffs on someone with waterboarding?

    Bob Collins, the bigger question in regard to MPR’s policy is whether reporters are forbidden to refer to waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Since the term is both vague and Orwellian, good reporting would eschew its use.

    I love the idea of referring to waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.” Why doesn’t MPR adopt that as its model when it is reporting about waterboarding?

    Have to agree with Paul about the murder question.

    Generally, when a person is decapitated by their kidnappers, there’s not much doubt about its intentionality.

  • bob

    I pulled the following from Glenn Greenwalds piece on Salon.com today:

    (A) refusal to state facts and instead amplify and give credence to plain falsehoods — is one of the principal and most destructive sicknesses in American establishment journalism. All of that was perfectly captured by penetratingly true satire back in August, 2004, from Jon Stewart and Daily Show “reporter” Rob Corddry [sent to me this week by a reader to illustrate what NPR is doing]:

    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.

    That derision is also as pure an expression of how Alicia Shepard and NPR think as one can imagine.

    But remember: don’t ever call them “stenographers.” That’s insulting and offensive. Rather, what they do is called “reporting,” by which they mean: “We call people in power and write down what they say really accurately and then we faithfully repeat what ‘each side says’ without commenting on it or judging it (except where it’s our Government’s claims against some foreign country, in which case we state our Government’s claims as fact).”

  • Alison

    “Rather, it is embracing a euphemism that places the network squarely on the side of the torturers and their enablers.”

    I disagree. I don’t think NPR is taking the side of torturers, rather they simply lack the courage to call waterboarding what it is as determined by many in the US and international community for decades. It is the same lack of courage that prevented the media from adequately challenging the government as we started torturing prisoners, conducting secret renditions, and launching a war on a fabricated justification.