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.
… 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)