The Still-Growing NPR 'Torture' Controversy

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.

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 AdversarialQuestioning).

"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 Posttrumpeted the controversy in a prominent headline all day, focusing on Shepard's refusal to be interviewed here. The media reporter Simon Owens wrote a column
on Shepard's refusal to discuss her rationale with me despite my having
been a primary critic of NPR's policy (the controversy that 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 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:

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

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 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 and 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).

* * * * *

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 this 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:

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.

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 (as well as the NYT and the Post) is doing]:

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?

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 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 . . .

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 whether these tactics are "torture." There are not two sides
to that question, and media outlets that suggest otherwise are actively
deceiving their audience.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Salon