NPR Ombudsman refuses interview regarding "torture"

A common affliction: a willingness to opine pedantically followed by a refusal to engage criticisms.

By Glenn Greenwald
June 30, 2009 2:31PM (UTC)
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NPR's Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, wrote a column last week justifying NPR's policy of using euphemisms such as "enhanced interrogation tactics" -- while barring the use of the word "torture" -- to describe the interrogation tactics used by the Bush administration.  I wrote a critique of that column which was widely cited, and the comment section to her column was filled with hundreds of angry criticisms -- many times the number of comments her column typically attracts (usually in the range of 10-20).  As a result of all that, last week I extended an invitation to Shepard to discuss her column with me on Salon Radio, and was told by an NPR representative that she would respond to the invitation by Monday.

Yesterday, we received Shepard's response:   no.  According to the Salon intern who tenaciously pursued Shepard all week and spoke with her yesterday:


I just got off the phone with Alicia Shepard.  She declined to have an interview, or to go on Salon Radio.  To quote, she thought "misleading things" were written about her on Salon, and said "I don't want to get into a shouting match." As for what the "misleading" statements were, she didn't clarify.

I've conducted close to 100 interviews since we launched Salon Radio in July of last year -- including numerous interviews with people expressing views I criticized rather harshly (one of whom was NPR's Tom Gjelten) -- and not a single one could be characterized as a "shouting match."  In fact, I don't think any of them entail anyone raising their voices at all.  That's a rather lame excuse to avoid facing challenges to one's arguments.  And if it's really true that I made "misleading" statements about her column (despite my excerpting large portions of what she wrote), that would be all the more reason to clarify what she believes.

But this is a quite common affliction in our political discourse.  There are many people who love to opine pedantically and express all sorts of provocative opinions -- as long as they don't ever have to confront criticisms of those views.  People like Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol will stay hiding on Fox News where they can spout all sorts of claims without challenge, but then refuse to be questioned about those views by someone like Bill Moyers.  Rachel Maddow constantly invites prominent Republicans on her show so she can interview them, but most refuse.  I can't even imagine writing a column that caused as much anger as Shepard's did -- on a topic as obviously controversial as torture -- and then refusing to discuss it with someone who led the objections to what I wrote.  That's why I've debated journalists I've criticized and have even gone on right-wing talk radio to discuss columns I wrote, and routinely respond to criticisms in the comment section to the posts I write.   For reasons I've explained before -- in response to a Marc Ambinder post advocating that pundits be more willing to engage those with whom they disagree -- seeking out a public forum in which to express controversial views (as Shepard has done) entails the obligation to confront critics and criticisms.  Refusing to do so is irresponsible cowardice that singularly enables reckless opining (The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus did the same thing after writing columns advocating that Bush officials not be investigated for the crimes they committed only to then refuse to be questioned about her views).

Revealingly, after my interview invitation was extended to her last week, Shepard did appear for a five-minute segment on an NPR program -- On the Media -- to discuss her column with an NPR host.  There's only so much an interviewer can accomplish in a five-minute segment, and that's particularly true when one is an NPR host interviewing a fellow NPR employee about an NPR management policy.  That said, the interviewer -- Bob Garfield -- did a very good job of asking some of the key questions (though there are many others I'd like to ask her).  As a result, even with those constraints, the emptiness of Shepard's rationale quickly became evident.  The segment can be heard here (or by clicking PLAY on the player below) and is recommended.  The comment section to the interview is filled with NPR listeners furious at the NPR policy and Shepard's defense of it.  It's not hard to see why Shepard is eager to avoid being questioned adversarially, outside of NPR, about her position.


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Glenn Greenwald

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