NPR’s On the Media this week features a discussion with NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard about their news department’s refusal to refer to waterboarding and other — what’s the word? Oh, yes — torture techniques as torture. I urge you to listen to the segment, in which host Bob Garfield rightly poses an utterly logical case for using the word torture, using question after question for which Shepard has absolutely no satisfying answer. The following is the full text of a comment I left, edited for length because there’s some sort of foolishness about using fewer than 2,000 characters in comments. It outlines the case that basically anyone with an ounce of sense and half as much courage would make.
During this week’s discussion of whether or not NPR should use the word torture when referring to waterboarding, Ms. Shepard stated more than once that it was not up to her or to NPR to define what is and is not torture. This is quite correct. In the process, she also mentioned enraged people e-mailing her demanding to know why abortion doctors aren’t called murderers on the air, though she did not follow that up with an explanation.
The answer is the same in both cases: Abortion doctors are not referred to as murderers because the legality of performing is not in question, nor is the proper terminology for referring to them. In other words, it has been determined by our nation’s legal authority that abortion doctors are not murderers.
And guess what? Multiple legal authorities, across a great many nations — all of whom were mentioned in the OTM discussion — have determined that waterboarding IS torture. In other words, this has been decided by people and organizations that have the authority and the gravity to make such decisions.
As such, by calling waterboarding torture, NPR would not in any way be making this decision for people — it would be referring to a practice in a manner that is entirely appropriate and in no way misleading.
While it is certainly up to the public to decide for themselves whether they believe waterboarding is morally wrong — just as they must decide for themselves whether they personally consider abortion to be murder or a legal, voluntary medical procedure — it is utterly unambiguous that the term torture applies to waterboarding.
Indeed, the decision is not NPR’s to make: If they wish to refer to waterboarding accurately, they have a responsibility to acknowledge it as torture, not to hide behind the disgusting euphemism coined and clung to by those who would seek to justify it. By embracing this linguistic cowardice, NPR certainly does make a decision on the part of its listeners: The decision to leave a question in listeners’ minds about whether an otherwise trustworthy news organization considers waterboarding to be torture (and thus perhaps calling into question whether or not the listeners themselves are correct in considering it torture, since if an otherwise respectable news organization isn’t calling it torture, should we think of it as such?).
NPR makes an even more shameful decision on its own behalf in doing so: The decision to bend, along with scads of irrelevant right-wing mouthpieces still sadly referred to as news organizations, to the pressure from a shrieking extremist few all too ready to accuse anyone who doesn’t lap up the conservative party line of having the dreaded “Liberal bias.” In its eagerness to avoid being labeled by groups utterly undeserving of any shred of credibility, NPR has made concessions to special interest groups that have played a crucial role in utterly gutting our nation’s once-reputable public discourse.
NPR’s defense, and Shepard’s espousal thereof, is insulting and wrongheaded, and does a tremendous disservice both to its reputation for honesty and its esteem among contributing listeners, myself included. Fie.