NPR ombudsman Shepard responds

NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard has responded to my item of last week in which I criticized her for defending NPR’s policy of refusing to refer to waterboarding as “torture.” She writes:

Yes, President Obama and AG Eric Holder have said that waterboarding was torture. I’d personally call it torture. But if you were an editor at the Globe, would you say that someone tortured another person? Or would you want to use a direct or indirect quote, i.e., “John Smith said the guard tortured him”?

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?

Would it be better to, say, describe the technique and then say some call it torture? I do not think enhanced interrogation techniques is acceptable either. That’s why I come down on describing the technique and adding that some call it torture.

Shepard asks, so I’ll attempt a few answers.

I’m not sure what Shepard thinks there is to gain by skiing down the slippery slope from waterboarding to getting rough with a suspect during an arrest. In my original item, I strictly limited my remarks to waterboarding, recognized as torture by just about everyone on the planet.

The opinions of Obama and Holder are entirely unnecessary to determining whether waterboarding is torture.

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.

Thursday update: I was not as precise as I wanted to be when I wrote about “everyone on the planet,” as I was in a rush and had lousy Internet access. Last week, Bob Garfield of “On the Media” interviewed Shepard and made the point I was trying to make:

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights says that waterboarding is torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross have called what the U.S. did “torture.” Waterboarding is unambiguously in violation of the International Convention on Torture, which has been ratified by 140-some countries.

The United States is among those 140 countries, but, as the Associated Press reported in 2002, the Bush administration sought to block enforcement of the measure when inspectors wanted to visit Guantánamo.

Torture is not only a moral problem, but it has a precise legal meaning that most definitely encompasses waterboarding.

49 thoughts on “NPR ombudsman Shepard responds

  1. Treg

    Dan, those are good comments.Some people in the media are apparently still unaware Obama won and it's okay now to go off message on stuff like this. Call me old-fashioned, but I expected better from NPR.Like trying to figure out a way to provide everyone with decent health care, truth is cool again.Did you see those celebrations in Iraq yesterday? Some believe they were celebrating US troop withdrawals.

  2. io saturnalia!

    Throwing a suspect to the ground and cuffing them is "abuse"? I thought it was police work.Maybe Gingrich, et al, have a point about NPR, after all.

  3. An Astute Observer

    **recognized as torture by just about everyone on the planet.**About a month ago there was survey (I for some reason think it was in the little read Saturday edition of the Globe) that said that a majority of Americans do not consider water boarding torture.I think the public perceives torture as people getting electric shocks or cutting of digits one by one for glee….as torture.I would think that would be enough not to use the term, as it's meaning is not universal….esp with the public who are the audience. I worry that you have sheltered too much of your life if you think just about everyone on the planet agrees that waterboarding is torture. This is the problem when people stay in their own little circle and pat each other on the back and feign outrage at the same agenda.

  4. Treg

    Astute – by "everyone on the planet," we can astutely surmise DK was referring to governments, the UN, etc. A significant portion of Americans don't believe in evolution, ya know?

  5. An Astute Observer

    Everyone on the planet means only those that agree with me? **A significant portion of Americans don't believe in evolution, ya know?**But they still refer to it as evolution. The first rule of public speaking (and writing I assume) was always assess your audience. It doesn't do any good to use terms that means different things to different people.Even people who don't believe in evolution use the same terminology.Like I said, I think the public thinks of torture as people getting electric shocks or cutting off digits one by one for glee.

  6. Bill Baar

    I'm guessing most Americans consider any technique "talk show radio hosts" undergo for a ratings boost as something less than torture.Considering we fire bombed Japanese Cities and then nuked two more of their them, I'm a bit suspiciouis about saying we hung Asano for "water boarding" an American Civilian detainee; regardless of what legal trappings the Military Tribunal of the Far East sentenced put on the affair at the time. The atmosphere of those immediate post war years had a very low threshold of evidence for killing anyone associated with the Imperial Japanese Army and its treatment of POWs. We had just finished killing Japanese, man, women, and child on a wholesale scale unseen before in history. I fear come another terror attack, perhapes because we missed info from a detainee we could have obtained waterboarding someone, will result in a similarly aroused America, fighting the war of last resort, as we've fought them: as merciless wars of anniliation.

  7. Treg

    Astute – What is and is not torture is defined by international treaties, the UN, human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, etc. I.e., people who know what they're talking about.Did the poll you cited filter for knowledge of what water boarding actually entails?

  8. Bill Baar

    Correction: Asano got 15 years hard labor. The Brits hung their culprits I believe. Frank Warner has the charges. It was a bit more than Water Boarding, and of course it was in a Japanese POW camp as background.. no Gitmo where one can hangin there for resettlement to Bermuda.

  9. An Astute Observer

    **Astute – What is and is not torture is defined by international treaties, the UN, human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch**No, words are defined by the dictionary…and by their colloquial use. NPR broadcasts to the American people. Their job is to communicate with their listeners. They are not trying a case in The Hague.

  10. bostonmediawatch

    Bill Baar is right, we actually should waterboard everybody as a CYA measure.Start with right wing republicans who predict terrorist attacks – that's mighty suspicious behavior to me.

  11. An Astute Observer

    **Did the poll you cited filter for knowledge of what water boarding actually entails?**Probably not (not that I think it would matter). Are the incendiary comments about "Bush's waterboarding policy at Guantanamo" prefaced the fact that it only involved 3 people. (Mostly one, an acknowledge Al-Queda operative)?You'd think this was a daily occurrence that happened to hundreds of people willy-nilly.

  12. Treg

    An Astute Observer – In your dictionary's definition of torture, does it specifically refer to the use of electrical shocks or cutting off digits (examples you cited)? How about dragging someoone behind a car for a hundred feet? If Webter's Dictionary doesn't explicitly mention that, it's not torture, right?

  13. An Astute Observer

    No, but they mention gratuitous and/or sadistic (That's the "for glee" that I referred to.)

  14. Bill Baar

    …we actually should waterboard everybody as a CYA measure.We're rendering them now instead….to who knows where…that's assuming they get to the point where we can render them. No one's asking Panetta what his advice was on rendetion back in those Clinton years..

  15. Treg

    Astute – Is it okay if we rely on the American Academy of Neurology for the definition and symptoms of stroke, or should we do an opinion poll?

  16. Mike F

    If waterboarding is considered an 'enhanced' or 'harsh' interrogation technique, wouldn't those terms then extend to any form of torture? If not, what is the delineation between an interrogation that makes use of torture and one that simply uses enhanced or harsh techiques?The real analogy with evolution would be to say that evolution and creationism should be presented as equally valid, just as the opinions of those who say that waterboarding is torture and those who say that it isn't should also be treated as equally valid. The existence of multiple opinions does not mean that all opinions are equally correct. Serious news organizations shouldn't be skewing things to conform to or appease their audience's pre-conceived notions (that's what FOX and MSNBC are for.) Even from a language perspective, a news organization shouldn't refrain from using the word 'torture' because some of their audience wouldn't necessarily assume waterboarding to be torture.If you use the dictionary to define what torture is, there should be little doubt that waterboarding is indeed torture.

  17. Bill Baar

    If Webter's Dictionary doesn't explicitly mention that, it's not torture, right?That's what got Bush into the bind in the first place. The Administration went out and asked what torture was, and what could be used that wasn't torture. …and someone came back with this list of techniques we used on our own troops to prepare them for torture, and so the Administration settled on waterboarding as something that was effective and fell short of torture.All documented… Obama administration is going to be so neat.

  18. Bill Baar

    ..Obama administration isn't going to be so neat I mean.And believe me, if America attacked, and Obama afraid of looking weak, they'll be a fearsome retaliation.No Clinton style missles on the condensed milk plant. War-as-last resort will be fearsome.

  19. Treg

    Bill, it's your contention that people who actually know what they're talking about consider waterboarding "effective"? Because we've heard a lot in the past few years from military and law enforcement experts that suggests that waterboarding is highly ineffective, as the subject will readily confess to anything and everything to make it stop. Sort of like the way people react to "torture."

  20. An Astute Observer

    **Astute – Is it okay if we rely on the American Academy of Neurology for the definition and symptoms of stroke, or should we do an opinion poll?**You're gonna beat this topic to death, right?I would say first, use of the correct definition of the word is primarily important…and be sure not to use terminology that is loaded or politcally charged. Second, if you were talking to Dr.s you could use terms like Hematoba Anialis….for which they all understand and agree on the terminology.If you were speaking to a bunch of immigrants who think of 'stroke' as something you do while rowing a boat, it would not be a good choice of a word.The politics behind the use of this word cannot be denied. The people using this word are partisans….not purists.

  21. Treg

    Astute – Extra credit for the alliteration there.But if it's partisan to call waterboarding torture, why did John McCain say it?

  22. Jerry

    Dan, I think you are getting steamed up unnecessarily here. As I read it, Ms. Shepard's response is trying to draw a distinction between reporting and commenting. Although a lot of folks might disagree, NPR, at least in the news department, doesn't have an editorial page or an op-ed.

  23. An Astute Observer

    **But if it's partisan to call waterboarding torture, why did John McCain say it?**To cover his rear end? 😉

  24. O-FISH-L

    One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. One man's act of torture is another's enhanced interrogation technique or even tribal ritual.This week, the Discovery Channel's "Tattoo Hunter" was with a remote tribe in Ethiopia where among other things, the women volunteer to have their backs caned, violently and repeatedly until they are permanently disfigured. The women consider the ritual and resulting scars a sign of strength. They actually complained when tribal elders called it a day, for fear of killing one of them. Waterboarding leaves no such scars and only takes a minute or two to potentially save tens of thousands of lives. To believe that waterboarding is torture is to believe that the U.S. tortures its own troops. Kudos to NPR for not playing politics here. Perhaps some in the media are finally getting it.

  25. mike_b1

    O-Fish, if what you are saying is you'd like us to come over and cane you, just say where and when.

  26. Dan Kennedy

    "Just about everyone on the planet" is pretty awkward. I was in a rush and had really slow Internet access, so couldn't do any research.Bob Garfield interviewed Shepard on "On the Media" this week. He gives a good rundown of the various international organizations that have classified waterboarding as torture.Not long after 9/11, Alan Dershowitz offered an intriguing, serious argument in favor of legalizing torture under certain circumstances. I think Dershowitz was wrong, but he was right to use the word.By refusing to call torture by its name, we infantilize the debate, reducing it to stupid "America doesn't torture" sound bites.

  27. Mike F

    Torture is the correct word. It is not reasonable to use another word because some people don't, or don't wish to, understand what it means.

  28. O-FISH-L

    Dan wrote, "By refusing to call torture by its name, we infantilize the debate, reducing it to stupid "America doesn't torture" sound bites."—Actually Dan, we cheapen the word torture by using it to describe anything and everything outside of traditional question and answer interview and interrogation techniques. Are there varying degrees of torture, like burns to the body, or is the sweet and sour method (good cop / bad cop) akin to putting out an eye or severing a limb to extract answers? When a loving parent's verbal reprimand or light spanking of a misbehaving child is labeled as child abuse, then what do you call what happened in Worcester on Father's Day? Words and terms of gravity and importance lose their impact when thrown around for political effect. As Patrick said and Obama later parroted, they become "just words."

  29. An Astute Observer

    Torture is the incorrect word. It is not reasonable to use this word because some people don't, or don't wish to, understand what it means.**By refusing to call torture by its name, we infantilize the debate, reducing it to stupid "America doesn't torture" sound bites.**By labeling it torture, we evoke images that are incorrect, we evoke motives which are not accurate, and we do so simply to politicize the issue.If when describing it to people, and knowing the limits of it (3 people…mainly 1)…and that it wasn't for simple gratification….people don't consider it torture…then calling it torture seems to purposely mislead people.

  30. Amused

    Referring to waterboarding as torture is a characterization, not a definition. Referring to baseball as a sport or oil as a fossil fuel is a definition.Describing waterboarding as "an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans" is to engage in argument, not description. Buzz words do not make good journalism.

  31. MeTheSheeple

    I wonder how this debate would have been treated years ago, before phrases such as "advanced interrogation techniques" were coined, to, well, politicize the process.Those same folks who created the "torture" memos ignored a relatively recent domestic precedent. Ronald Reagan's Justice Department prosecuted a waterboarding case.

  32. bostonmediawatch

    "To believe that waterboarding is torture is to believe that the U.S. tortures its own troops."That is a stupid canard and everybody knows it, including those who mouth it.

  33. Steve

    "Just about everyone on the planet" is pretty awkward. I was in a rush and had really slow Internet access, so couldn't do any research.LOL!Reminds me of "Two Weeks Notice":Lucy Kelson: I think you're the most selfish human being on the planet.George Wade: Well that's just silly. Have you met everybody on the planet?

  34. mike_b1

    Torture is watching O-Fish and Not-So-Astute struggling with all the semantic angles of the English language.

  35. Treg

    An Astute Observer (not your real name, right?) -Torture is not defined by motives or intent. Torture is torture.

  36. Jerry

    Some folks (not me, of course) consider listening to Michael Jackson is torture. Others would disagree. The moral: When in doubt and you can't leave it out, at least provide attribution.

  37. Treg

    . . . And I'll just plug Greenwald's post once more, to note that he points out Shepard will be discussing this issue on Talk of the Nation today. Should be amusing.

  38. An Astute Observer

    Treg said: **Torture is not defined by motives or intent. Torture is torture.**Is everything always this cut and dry for you lefties?The definition includes motive and intent. Such as sadistic pleasure and gratuitousness. Especially from the Latin root.Again, you are going to beat this topic to death? You just cant stand that someone might have a differing opinion?

  39. Treg

    Torture is torture, regardless of whether you honestly believe it will save a million people's lives (a fallacy, of course – torture doesn't work, as the subject will just tell you whatever you seem to want to hear in order to get you to stop), or whether you're just doing it for fun.

  40. An Astute Observer

    **Torture is torture**And something that is not torture…is not torture.**Torture is watching O-Fish and Not-So-Astute struggling with all the semantic angles of the English language.**What even better is watching Lefties try to manipulate language to further their politics.The other side of this political debate are Righties who insist that Abortion is Murder.Works both ways.

  41. Treg

    Astute – it's not just liberals who believe the US should not torture. Nor do all conservatives challenge the notion that waterboarding qualifies as torture.

  42. An Astute Observer

    I believe the US should not torture as well.But the loudest people and the people at the forefront of this discussion are all partisans.Back to the original premise about NPR's ombudsman. She realizes that this is a politically charged word…and would rather quote other people "Human Right's watch calls it torture", etc. Since the word has become a political football, NPR has chosen not to take sides…and just present the facts. Which is what serious journalist should do.

  43. mike_b1

    That's funny. A conservative calls out other folks for pussyfooting with language, then pats public radio on the back for doing the same.Hypocrite, thy name is Not-So-Astute.

  44. Steve Brown

    Alicia Shepard will discuss this topic on Talk of the Nation today(7/2) around 2:40 on WBUR

  45. An Astute Observer

    **Hypocrite, thy name is Not-So-Astute.**No, NPR is not pussyfooting around with language. They are using facts…which is what good journalism is.

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