Alicia Shepard is as sharp a media observer as they come. A longtime writer for the American Journalism Review and the author of “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” she is a serious and respected voice.
That said, I’m scratching my head over how wrong Shepard gets it on NPR’s refusal to use the term “torture” to describe the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced during the Bush years. Shepard, now NPR’s ombudsman, writes:
I recognize that it’s frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric. But the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate. People have different definitions of torture and different feelings about what constitutes torture. NPR’s job is to give listeners all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put it in context.
Let’s forget “certain practices” and focus on just one: waterboarding, long recognized as torture. In November 2007, Sen. John McCain pointed out that the United States executed Japanese officers after World War II for waterboarding American prisoners of war.
And when McCain was challenged, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site PolitiFact.com investigated McCain’s assertion. Its conclusion: McCain was right — a number of Japanese officers were hanged, and others were sentenced to long prison terms, because they had engaged in waterboarding.
Shepard writes that rather than describing waterboarding as torture, it makes more sense just to say what happened: “To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the characterization…. A basic rule of vivid writing is: ‘Show, Don’t Tell.'”
All right. 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.”