NPR's ombudsman: Why we bar the word "torture"

Journalists reveal the most about themselves when they explain why they refuse to state facts

Published June 22, 2009 9:23PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Anyone who believes that NPR is a "liberal" media outlet -- and anyone who wants to understand the decay of American journalism -- should read this column by NPR's Ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, as she explains and justifies why NPR bars the use of the word "torture" to describe what the Bush administration did.  Responding to what she calls "a slew of emails challenging NPR's policy of using the words 'harsh interrogation tactics' or 'enhanced interrogation techniques' to describe the treatment of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration," Shepard hauls out every trite and misleading bit of journalistic conventional wisdom to dismiss listeners' concerns and defend NPR's Orwellian practice (as I noted recently when writing about The New York Times' refusal to use the word "torture," NPR's compulsive use of Bush euphemisms has been a constant complaint of the excellent blog NPR Check).

Let's just take her claims one by one, because they're so instructive:

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 torture."

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.

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." If the U.S. repeatedly referred to tactics as "torture” when used by others, what possible justification is there for helping Bush officials call it something else when they themselves use those tactics?   That's the key question raised by Koppel and her "answer" -- torture is illegal and is a very serious matter -- rather obviously says nothing about that question.


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."

What a slimy formulation this is.  It's true that "both Presidents Bush and Obama have insisted that the United States does not use torture," but they’re not -- as she tries to imply -- in agreement about whether the tactics Bush authorized are "torture."  In his first week in office, Obama barred the tactics in question by Executive Order, ordering the CIA to confine itself to the Army Field Manual.  So when Obama says that "the United States does not use torture," that has nothing to do with the so-called "enhanced interrogation tactics" Bush authorized.  To the contrary, both Obama and the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, have both said unequivocally that waterboarding is torture (John McCain, noting that "it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today," said the same thing).


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.

Nobody argues that "all interrogation could be classified as torture," so what’s the point of denying a claim nobody makes?  The point is that extended sleep deprivation, prolonged forced nudity, hypothermia and waterboarding someone 183 times -- particularly when done together -- are all unquestionably, indisputably "torture" under every relevant authority. 

The U.S. has prosecuted those acts as torture in the pastMultiple 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 tyrantsThey 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.  Over 100 detainees died in U.S. custody.  Even Shepard acknowledges that detainees died in U.S. custody as a result of interrogations:

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.

How can you kill a detainee using interrogation tactics without torturing him?  There is no reasonable debate about many of these tactics, and NPR is doing nothing other than misleading its listeners by refusing to apply the term and instead adopting Orwellian government euphemisms. 

All of the evidence proves these tactics are "torture" using every credible and reasonable definition of the term.  The only thing NPR has to set against that is:  "Bush says it's not torture."  But that's good enough for our modern journalist:   after all, if a government official insists that something is false, they will refrain from stating that it is true -- no matter how true it is.  That's because their only role is to pass on what each side says and leave it at that.  That, of course, is the very definition of a "mindless stenographer" -- a term they bizarrely find offensive even as they apply to themselves its defining traits.


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.

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"). It doesn’t seem to occur to her that something other than base vindictiveness – such as a desire to maintain the universal taboo against torture, or allegiance to accuracy in language – might motivate those who want NPR to call torture "torture," rather than prettify it with banality-of-evil euphemisms invented by the very people who perpetrated it.


There has been no clear consensus on what constitutes torture, noted Brian Duffy, NPR's former managing editor in late April. "President Bush said, 'We do not torture -- period.' Yet water-boarding and several other tactics not approved in the Army Field Manual were approved by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) during his administration," said Duffy.

There was no consensus on whether Saddam had nuclear weapons and was involved in the 9/11 attacks -- some said he was; some said he wasn’t -- and therefore NPR shouldn’t take a position. There’s no consensus on whether the world is only 6,000 years old -- some say it is; some say it isn’t -- and therefore NPR shouldn’t take a position.  Bush said he didn’t authorize torture ("period") -- some say he did; some say he didn’t -- and therefore NPR shouldn’t take a position.


"During his confirmation hearings, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder said clearly that water-boarding was torture, and President Obama has said the same thing," [Duffy] continued. "But the Obama Administration has issued no overarching statement on the issue. . . ."

So the President emphatically said it was torture. So did the Attorney General.  But they issued "no overarching statement" on the issue?  What does that even mean?  What’s an "overarching statement"?  More to the point, why do they need Obama to say it in order to report it?  Something is either true or it isn’t -- even if Obama doesn’t issue an "overarching statement" acknowledging it.  Why should the claims of political officials determine what a news organization does and does not report and how they report it?


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.

This passage is the second time Shepard described waterboarding with the pleasant-sounding, clinical, minimizing phrase: "poured water down a detainee's mouth and nostrils for 40 seconds."  Note the other nice-sounding descriptions for what the U.S. did ("forced to stand for hours along side a wall"; that almost sounds peaceful, like a yoga pose:  "along side a wall").

Any mention of the numerous detainee deaths?  Or the mental and physical havoc wreaked on these detainees?  Or the freezing temperatures and cold water and "walling" and severe stress positions?  No.  In light of that, does anyone believe that she doesn’t have an opinion on this topic, and that the opinion is that these techniques are not "torture"?  She makes the tactics sound milder than Dick "dunk-in-the-water" Cheney does.  As is virtually always the case with modern journalists, those who scream the loudest about how they must refrain from stating facts in order to maintain "neutrality" are the ones who, in reality, are the least neutral of all.  They're just too dishonest to acknowledge it.

One last point:  all of this underscores the reasons why Dan Froomkin had to be disappeared from The Post and why he is such a pure journalist in the aberrational sense.  Here's how Froomkin addressed this very same question just last week in a Post online chat:

Reader: If the Post can't or won't call the techniques torture, the Post's editorial position lines up exactly with the Bush Administration's line that they didn't torture, doesn't it?

Dan Froomkin: I call it tortureOver and over again.

That's what real journalists do, by definition.  They state facts regardless of who it offends and whether government officials deny them.  NPR should try that sometime.


UPDATE:  In comments, johnqeniac makes an excellent point which could apply to many other topics:

How about banning the use of the word 'terrorist' for exactly the same set of pathetic excuses?

If NPR were sincere about their 'describe, don't label' doctrine, then they would forego the use of the words 'terrorist' and 'terrorism' in favor of something like 'harsh combat techniques'.

Exactly.  But in that case, the U.S. Government uses the term "Terrorist" in all sorts of ways, and though its use is vigorously disputed around the world, NPR will still use it (and does use it) because the Government uses it (and/or because -- as is true for torture -- the term clearly applies despite the existence of those who dispute its application).  But that's what our establishment media organizations are first and foremost:  spokespeople for government claims, and they take their cues from the government.  (Note, similarly, NPR's free-wheeling and quite subjective use of the descriptive term "extremist" when it suits them, even in the face of substantial dispute over its applicability).


UPDATE II:  Even GE-owned NBC News was willing -- at least once, in 2006 -- to use a descriptive phrase that the Bush administration vigorously disputed in a matter "loaded with political and social implications":

NBC News on Monday branded the Iraq conflict a civil war -- a decision that put it at odds with the White House and that analysts said would increase public disillusionment with the U.S. troop presence there.

NBC, a major U.S. television network, said the Iraqi government's inability to stop spiraling violence between rival factions fit its definition of civil war.

The Bush administration has for months declined to call the violence a civil war -- although the U.S. general overseeing the Iraq operation said in August there was a risk -- and a White House official on Monday disputed NBC's assessment. . .

Several analysts said NBC's decision was important as the administration would face more pressure to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq if the U.S. public comes to view the conflict as a civil war.

The reason for calling it a "civil war" even though Bush officials and their followers vehemently denied that it was?  Because it was a "civil war."  That fact, standing alone, ought to be decisive.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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