Alicia C. Shepard
It's clear from the reaction to my posting, that NPR's policy on the use of the word "torture" is one NPR's audience feels strongly about.
For the record, I have brought this issue and the volume of comments to the attention of NPR's top editorial staff. I do want to point out that it's been misreported that NPR has banned the use of the word, "torture." If you read the NPR policy in the previous posting, that is not the case.
I'd like to succinctly restate what I, as a journalist with almost 30 years' experience, believe to be the most important point. I recognize that some will attack me as a shill for NPR.
I am not shilling for NPR. I don't agree with its use of bureaucratic euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques."
But I am shilling for strong, credible journalism that is as objective as humanly possible. I am shilling for NPR to practice journalism based on putting out reliable information, to the best of its ability — without taking sides — so the public can make its own informed decisions.
My sense is that many of you instead want NPR to adopt the position you believe in because you think that position is the correct one. I respect your views. But I would ask you to respect that reasonable people can differ.
I believe that it is not the role of journalists to take sides or to characterize things.
So again, instead of using loaded language — and the word "torture" is loaded — I advocate that NPR describe interrogation techniques in detail. Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com said that by describing waterboarding as I did, I made it "pleasant-sounding" and "clinical," which baffles me.
To me, the word "waterboarding" alone sounds like what you might do at an amusement park. But if you describe it as tying someone to a board, pouring water down his mouth and nose to create a sense of drowning— anyone would understand how terrifying that can be.
But no matter how many distinguished groups — the International Red Cross, the U.N. High Commissioners — say waterboarding is torture, there are responsible people who say it is not. Former President Bush, former Vice President Cheney, their staff and their supporters obviously believed that waterboarding terrorism suspects was necessary to protect the nation's security.
One can disagree strongly with those beliefs and their actions. But they are due some respect for their views, which are shared by a portion of the American public. So, it is not an open-and-shut case that everyone believes waterboarding to be torture. Many in NPR's audience obviously believe it is, but others do not.
The main argument of my column was that NPR should describe waterboarding rather than use coded language to characterize it. Another alternative is to quote responsible officials who have described it as torture, for example President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
There are plenty of commentators, pundits and cable news shows who give opinions rather than facts. As a news consumer, I prefer to get the facts and then decide what I think.
I admit that a linguist gave me pause when he said that if an American journalist were captured in Iran and slammed against a wall repeatedly, or waterboarded or had his fingernails pulled out, many American journalists would say that the Iranian government had tortured the correspondent.
But if I heard a report saying a reporter was tortured, without any details, my first question would be: What do you mean by tortured? Describe exactly what happened so I can decide how to characterize it.
Again, I respect your views and have read your comments.
I hope that most NPR listeners would be willing to give some credence to an alternative viewpoint — a viewpoint that says journalists should strive to avoid taking sides and using loaded language in a contentious debate about the rightness or wrongness of a public policy.