The still-growing NPR "torture" controversy

The media outlet's use of Bush euphemisms sparks a much-needed debate on journalistic standards.

Published July 2, 2009 10:03AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

There are several noteworthy developments since I wrote on Tuesday about the refusal of NPR's Ombdusman, Alica Shepard, to be interviewed by me about NPR's ban on using the word "torture" to describe the Bush administration's interrogation tactics.  Given the utter vapidity of her rationale ("there are two sides to the issue. And I'm not sure, why is it so important to call something torture?"), I was momentarily amazed to learn that she actually teaches "Media Ethics" to graduate students at Georgetown University (my amazement quickly dissipated once I recalled that this is the same institution that, until last year, paid Doug Feith -- Doug Feith -- to teach students "national security policy" and that Berkeley Law School has John Yoo "teaching law" to its students; next semester at Georgetown:  Karl Rove teaches Civility in a Post-Partisan Age, Bill Kristol lectures on Accountability in Punditry, while David Gregory examines The Role of Intellect in Adversarial Questioning).

NPR's "torture" ban and its Ombudsman's incoherent defense of it has now turned into a significant controversy for NPR -- and rightfully so.  Yesterday, The Huffington Post trumpeted the controversy in a prominent headline all day long, focusing on Shepard's refusal to be interviewed here.  The media reporter Simon Owens wrote a long column on Shepard's refusal to discuss her rationale with me despite my having been a primary critic of NPR's policy (indeed, this controversy began several weeks ago when I noted the ample documentation from NPR Check of NPR's steadfast refusal to use the word "torture" and the embarrassing contortions it employs to accomplish that).  

Also, along with her On the Media appearance this weekend, Shepard went on another NPR-affiliated show -- Patt Morrison's KPCC Southern California Public Radio program -- in a quality segment that included several good questions from Morrison (and even better ones from callers); a very well-compiled, illustrative and cringe-inducing montage of NPR's repeatedly going out of its way to avoid calling Bush interrogation tactics "torture," juxtaposed with an excerpt where NPR explicitly accused Iraqis in Sadr City of "using torture" against detainees; and, finally, the inclusion in the discussion of a Berkeley Professor of Linguistics explaining why it matters so much what the media does in this regard and how virtually all media around the world -- other than what he called the "spineless U.S. media" -- call these tactics "torture" (the KPCC program credits my criticisms of Shepard for catalyzing the controversy and the segment can be heard here).  Amazingly, a caller asked Shepard about the advent of blogs and how it has diversified commentary, and in replying, Shepard put on her most condescending and self-glorifying voice to say this:

I think, um, we're now at a stage where the debate is between dialogue and diatribe, and I wish there was more dialogue.  I think there's more diatribe.

That's from the same person who refuses to "dialogue" about her views outside of NPR-affiliated confines. 

Along those lines, Shepard has gone back to her NPR blog to write yet another column about this controversy and to assure NPR listeners in her headline that "Your Voices Have Been Heard."  In it, she references my criticisms without bothering to address any of them, and also claims, for whatever it's worth:  "For the record, I have brought this issue and the volume of comments to the attention of NPR's top editorial staff."

Finally, Shepard today will appear on yet another NPR program, the nationally broadcast Talk of the Nation, beginning at 2:00 p.m. EST, for a segment entitled "Why Doesn't NPR Call Waterboarding Torture?"  Readers here are obviously quite familiar with this controvery as well as Shepard's conduct in it thus far and could obviously pose excellent questions to her.  Her appearance this afternoon on Talk of the Nation provides a good opportunity for that (the call-in number is 800-989-8255; for those in cities (such as NYC) where NPR doesn't broadcast that show, CarolynC has information about where to hear it).

* * * * *

Several weeks ago, when writing about all of the various euphemisms employed by The New York Times to avoid using the word "torture," I wrote about why I think this matters so much and why the media's use of euphemisms invented by the government torturers themselves so vividly reflects the core corruption of American "journalism":

This active media complicity in concealing that our Government created a systematic torture regime -- by refusing ever to say so -- is one of the principal reasons it was allowed to happen for so long . . . The steadfast, ongoing refusal of our leading media institutions to refer to what the Bush administration did as "torture" -- even in the face of more than 100 detainee deaths; the use of that term by a leading Bush official to describe what was done at Guantanamo; and the fact that media outlets frequently use the word "torture" to describe the exact same methods when used by other countries -- reveals much about how the modern journalist thinks. These are their governing principles:

There are two sides and only two sides to every "debate" -- the Beltway Democratic establishment and the Beltway Republican establishment. If those two sides agree on X, then X is deemed true, no matter how false it actually is. If one side disputes X, then X cannot be asserted as fact, no matter how indisputably true it is. The mere fact that another country's behavior is described as X doesn't mean that this is how identical behavior by the U.S. should be described. They do everything except investigate and state what is true. In their view, that -- stating what is and is not true -- is not their role.

The whole world knows that the U.S. tortured detainees in the "War on Terror." Yet American newspapers refuse to say so.

That second paragraph is a pure distillation of how Shepard -- the "Media Ethics" Professor in Georgetown's graduate journalism program and NPR's Ombudsman -- explicitly thinks.  And that -- a refusal to state facts and instead amplify and give credence to plain falsehoods -- is one of the principal and most destructive sicknesses in American establishment journalism.  All of that was perfectly captured by penetratingly true satire back in August, 2004, from Jon Stewart and Daily Show "reporter" Rob Corddry [sent to me this week by a reader to illustrate what NPR is doing]:

Stewart: Here's what puzzles me most, Rob. John Kerry's record in Vietnam is pretty much right there in the official records of the U.S. military, and hasn't been disputed for 35 years.

Corddry: That's right, Jon, and that's certainly the spin you'll be hearing coming from the Kerry campaign over the next few days.

Stewart: That's not a spin thing, that's a fact. That's established.

Corddry: Exactly, Jon, and that established, incontrovertible fact is one side of the story.

Stewart:  But isn't that the end of the story? I mean, you've seen the records, haven't you? What's your opinion?

Corddry: I'm sorry, "my opinion"? I don't have opinions. I'm a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called "objectivity" -- �might want to look it up some day.

Stewart: Doesn't objectivity mean objectively weighing the evidence, and calling out what's credible and what isn't?

Corddry: Whoa-ho! Sounds like someone wants the media to act as a filter! Listen, buddy:  Not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.

That derision is also as pure an expression of how Alicia Shepard and NPR think as one can imagine.  And it's not just Shepard, but American journalists generally.  From a 2006 interview Jim Lehrer gave to Columbia Journalism Review:

CJR: At CJR Daily, we spent a lot of time during the 2004 presidential campaign criticizing just the sort of story that it seems [Ben] Bradlee is describing — stories that "highlight the controversy," report this claim versus these competing claims, rather than providing facts for the reader and helping them navigate toward the truth. What are your thoughts on this? How do you approach reporting what a public official has said something that is blatantly untrue?

Lehrer: I don’t deal in terms like "blatantly untrue." That’s for other people to decide when something’s “blatantly untrue.” There’s always a germ of truth in just about everything . . . My part of journalism is to present what various people say about it the best we can find out [by] reporting and let others — meaning commentators, readers, viewers, bloggers or whatever . . .

But remember:  don't ever call them "stenographers."  That's insulting and offensive. Rather, what they do is called "reporting," by which they mean:  "We call people in power and write down what they say really accurately and then we faithfully repeat what 'each side says' without commenting on it or judging it (except where it's our Government's claims against some foreign country, in which case we state our Government's claims as fact)."

* * * * *

What makes this practice particularly destructive in the torture context is that the central enabling deceit of the Bush administration was that there are no objective, verifiable standards for what "torture" is.  Instead, it's just all in the eye of the beholder, easily re-defined to include or exclude anything we want, dependent upon who is doing it, devoid of any authoritative sources on what it means, and, ultimately, entirely subjective.  It is that rotted premise -- that there is no fixed, known understanding of "torture" -- that outlets like NPR are not just accepting, but actively promoting, by refusing to use the term on the ground that "there are two sides to the question" (see ABC News' Jake Tapper for an imperfect though still commendable exception:  tactics used by CIA "qualify under international law as torture").

It is vital to keep in mind -- as I noted last week in arguing why it's so vital that torture photos be released -- that there is still very much an active, vibrant debate over torture in this country.  That debate encompasses not only the question of whether we should punish those who did it, but whether or not it is right and just for us to use it.  In fact, as reported just recently by Harper's Luke Mitchell, Jeremy Scahill, and Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, there is ample evidence that very serious abuse is still occurring in America's detention facilities, including at Guantanamo (all of which confirmed similar reports from earlier this year).  Whether the U.S. should torture people is a matter of opinion about which reporters need not take a position.  But that is plainly not the case for the proposition that these tactics are "torture."  There are not two sides to that question, and media outlets that suggest otherwise are actively deceiving their audience.


UPDATE:   I neglected to mention this strange email exchange I had with Anna Christopher, NPR's "Senior Manager, Media Relations," who contacted me on Tuesday after I wrote about Shepard's refusal to be interviewed.  In posting the exchange, I'm editing out one sentence from my reply which references an insignificant fact about why Shepard was out of the office last week that the Salon intern who spoke with Shepard's office (on my behalf) agreed to keep off-the-record (an agreement I therefore feel compelled to respect).


UPDATE II:  In comments, Paul Daniel Ash points out the glaring dishonesty in Shepard's central defense of NPR's policy.


UPDATE III:  On a not unrelated note, long-time journalist Charles Kaiser (Newsweek, NYT, WSJ) notes that The Washington Post has been caught selling lobbyist access to their reporters and political officials; declares the Post dead; and writes its obituary.

E-mail from Anna Christopher to GG:


I just saw your most recent column, criticizing Lisa [sic] Shepard for declining your interview request. Could you please give me a call when you have a chance?

If you or your interns want to make a request to interview NPR staff, that goes through me. I would have been able to tell your intern – who so tenaciously pursued her last week – that Lisa was on vacation and unreachable until Thursday. She didn’t ignore your request. And the last time I checked, requests are just that – requests.  Not demands. Able to be accepted or declined.

Thank you,


Anna Christopher | Senior Manager, Media Relations

* * * * *

Reply from GG to Anna Christopher:


Anna - You apparently didn't read the column very carefully. We were told by someone from NPR -- Anna Tauzin -- that Alicia Shepard was [out of the office] last week and would therefore respond to the interview request by Monday. That's exactly what I wrote today. Tauzin did authorize us to say: "We were told by NPR that the Ombudsman is out of the office this week and her office will get back to us by Monday with a response." That's exactly what I wrote.

I didn't say she ignored my request, so why would you deny that she did? In fact, I said the opposite:  that she responded to the request by refusing to be interviewed.

If there are internal NPR structures about who has what responsibilities, that's up to NPR to make clear.  Tauzin never once said it was you who had to be contacted for the interview request.  She was more than willing to convey the request to Shepard, and the Salon intern then spoke with Shepard herself yesterday.

I didn't suggest that Shepard broke the law by refusing to be interviewed by me -- only that people like her who opine pedantically on controversial matters have an ethical obligation to engage critics of their views.

If you'd still like to talk, let me know and I'll give you a call -

Glenn Greenwald

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No further reply received from NPR.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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