Why Doesn't NPR Call Waterboarding Torture? Waterboarding is the interrogation technique employed during the Bush Administration on some suspected terrorists. Some NPR listeners take issue with NPR's policy to not explicitly call the simulated drowning procedure torture.
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Why Doesn't NPR Call Waterboarding Torture?

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Why Doesn't NPR Call Waterboarding Torture?

Why Doesn't NPR Call Waterboarding Torture?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Some listeners wonder why I, and others on NPR News, don't explicitly describe waterboarding as torture. Waterboarding is the interrogation technique employed during the Bush administration on some suspected terrorists. The suspect is tied down, a rag stuffed in his mouth and water poured on to simulate drowning.

Critics wrote to say that both President Obama and Attorney General Holder have said they think waterboarding is torture. Why does NPR News use qualified language, like what many regard as torture?

NPR's Ombudsman Alicia Shepard has received hundreds of impassioned emails and comments. She joins us in just a moment.

If you have questions on this: 800-989-8255, email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. At that same Web site, you can find two columns on this subject posted by NPR's Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, who joins us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you back in the program.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And what do you do when you get complaints like this?

SHEPARD: Well, since April when the torture memos that the Justice Department put out came out, I started getting a steady stream of emails. And so, I decided to look into what is NPR's policy, what do I, as a journalist with 30 years of experience, think is good journalism, and what should do the practice be? And I wrote about that. And, basically…

CONAN: Well, you go - first of all, you're the ombudsman. You don't make policy, for that matter, neither do I.

SHEPARD: Absolutely. And thank you for pointing that out. In fact, the policy that is NPR's, which is on the first column I wrote about this at npr.org/ombudsman, is NPR's policy.

It is not my job to defend NPR's policy. It is my job to be independent. In fact, I have a contract. I don't show what I write to people before it goes up on the Web. So no one from NPR saw that. I did ask NPR top news executives, you know, what is your policy? And I represented it. And I basically came down fairly clearly that I think that, as journalists, as a reputable, credible news organization, you have to include all sides in the debate.

And I don't think saying things like enhanced interrogation techniques is helpful to the listeners. I think that is a euphemism. I advocate that NPR describe waterboarding just as you just did so you really get a sense of what it is and let the listeners decide.

CONAN: Torture memos, you know, torture memos, well, they were about the subject of torture. These were the documents written by people in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department during the Bush administration in an attempt to find out whether these enhanced interrogation techniques - their language - were legal or not. They, of course, came to the determination that they were.

The Obama administration's come to a different conclusion, though they have not charged anybody in relation to those previous acts. Nevertheless, these memos were called torture memos because they were about torture.

SHEPARD: Exactly. And that was NPR's policy about why it was okay to say that.

CONAN: And as you get into this conversation, things, as you suggested a moment ago, take on a life of their own outside of NPR. And I think some people misunderstood some things that you wrote to suggest that NPR had banned the use of the word torture.

SHEPARD: Which is just not the case. And, in fact, the policy says to use - use of the word torture unambiguously, when this - to use the word torture unambiguously when this makes sense in the context of the piece. So clearly, if you're talking about what President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder said about waterboarding, you would say they consider it torture.

CONAN: But that's not to say that it is torture.

SHEPARD: No, it's not to say it because this is definitely a political debate. And I think what's frustrating to me is that there are a solid chunk of listeners out there who feel very passionately about this subject and feel that NPR shouldn't represent their side, that this is not a debate. But when there are two sides or three sides, then that becomes a debate.

And so, the bottom line is, you know, whether waterboarding is torture is still a matter of political debate, even if some listeners don't agree. So what I personally believe, or you believe, is not the issue. And that is frustrating to me, but I - the people aren't - don't seem to buy my argument that it's important for a news organization to represent all sides, whether they agree with that side or not. And in this case many people do not agree with Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, that the techniques used to get information were not torture.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. Again, our number is 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org.

Our guest again is Alicia Shepard, who's NPR's ombudsman.

And we'll begin with Pat. Pat with us from Prescott, Arizona.

PAT (Caller): Yeah. Hi. I know that you've written in a couple of pieces that you did on this that instead of using terms like torture or enhanced interrogation, that instead you should describe the process that happened. You know, instead of saying waterboarding, you should say, oh, we tie this guy down and then we put water in his mouth, blah, blah, blah, until he started to drown, and then we did it 183 times.

But how realistic is that in sort of a journalistic environment where there's so much shorthand used for things…

CONAN: And time is of the essence on the radio.

PAT: Exactly. I mean, you guys have 20 minutes to do this and that's like an eternity in news.

SHEPARD: Mm-hmm. No, I think you make a good point. And so, you know, the second alternative would be to say that, you know, some people consider it torture. But not everyone does.

And I - you know, what I personally think is, if you describe waterboarding to me, that sounds like torture. But I - there are lots of personal feelings that I have as a journalist and I don't express them. And so I think it's fine and it's good for journalists to be descriptive to explain that there's a good segment of the population who believes that this is torture.

Neal, how do you get around this?

CONAN: I usually say what others regard as torture because that's the - and, you know, when we're talking about the techniques specifically, as we just are, you know, you have a few seconds and you can describe the policy as it, you know, what it is. But enhanced interrogation techniques, as some people said, and I think you did too, it does sound a little Orwellian.

SHEPARD: Yes, I think so.

PAT: Can I say one more thing?

CONAN: Go ahead, Pat.

PAT: Well, and even - we have this old Bush administration definition of torture that would have said basically interrogation to the point of organ failure. And it's been fully established that we've interrogated people to where they died, or they had not only organ failure, but their whole bodies failed. So that - you know, even under the, like, sloppy Bush definition…

CONAN: Well, doesn't seem to me to be a question of whether it's torture or not - it's a question whether it's murder or not.

PAT: Well, their definition of torture was, oh, the pain expressed by organ failure. Well, if somebody's heart failed because they were being interrogated, like - you know, we're basically beyond the point of whether this was torture or not, and you know, I think that's what side I fall on, and it sounds like many of your listeners do too. So thanks, and I'll get off.

CONAN: Okay, Pat. Thanks very much.

Here's an email from Siobhan(ph) in San Francisco. I decided to boycott KQED's last pledge drive because of this particular issue. Among others, I feel bad to have hurt KQED and will support them again in the future. But NPR's not calling torture, torture, is completely dishonest. I hate the thought of even a dime of my money paying for this. You undermine your credibility as a news organization. Please reconsider the policy.

Again, neither Alicia Shepard nor I make policy. But undermining credibility…

SHEPARD: Well, I think that it would undermine credibility if NPR adopted what one side felt and used that as the operating principle.

CONAN: It's fair to say that this controversy is not limited to National Public Radio News.

SHEPARD: You know, that's an excellent point. This - someone sent me an email and said, I'm not sure why you, Alicia Shepard, have a target on your back. But I seem to - and you know, that's fine. That's part of my job. But this is the practice of most mainstream news organizations, to not take sides.

CONAN: And by not taking sides, it seems some charge that NPR and these other news organizations are, in fact, siding with the people who are trying to get away with these euphemisms.

SHEPARD: Well - and I would agree with that. If you use something like enhanced interrogation techniques, I think that that is a form of taking sides. NPR disagrees. You know, that's where we part ways.

And I do want to point out one thing, that I hope that Siobhan will realize how important her contributions to KQED are in terms of - NPR's only a fraction of the programming that is on there.

And I'd like to say that my job is to be the public advocate, to be the representative, and all of these emails and comments, phone calls, have been transmitted to NPR's management. So it's not as though…

CONAN: The people who do make policy.

SHEPARD: Right. Yes. It's not as though I'm just out there on my own. I've -certainly I've asked NPR to, you know, comment on this, to put something on the ombudsman page. It feels to me that this is not my policy and that NPR should…

CONAN: Here's an email from Peter…

SHEPARD: …back up the policy.

CONAN: …Peter in Boston. If you try to include all sides of debate, Shepard's words, when a debate has been purposely manufactured, then you are being manipulated and you are helping to dupe your listeners. Tobacco companies manufactured a, quote, "debate," over lung cancer. Creationists manufacture a, quote, "debate" over evolution. And yes, torturers are manufacturing a debate over the meaning of the term torture. They're trying to dupe you and you are falling for it.

SHEPARD: You know, I don't buy it. I buy that different people can have different ways of thinking. I think back to the debate on abortion. Some people think that, you know, life begins at the moment of conception, other people don't. That is a debate. Those are people who see things differently.

I find myself in an odd position of trying to defend the Bush administration, because I don't think as a journalist I should be defending any particular side. But they do have a different side. Whether it's to dupe people or not, again, the role of journalists is to put that information out there. How is it that someone would say that they're being duped? They know that this information is out there because journalists are putting it out there.

CONAN: Our guest, Alicia Shepard, NPR ombudsman. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Natasha on the line, calling from Hartford in Connecticut.

NATASHA (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Natasha.

NATASHA: Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the fact that NPR doesn't take sides in issues like this. That's the reason that I listen to NPR versus watching, you know, cable news channels. I don't feel like it's in practice anymore. You know, your guest mentioned that that's what most mainstream news organizations do, is they don't take sides. And I have to disagree. Now - nowadays it doesn't seem like mainstream news organizations avoid taking sides. It seems like there's a lot of pandering to the demographic that they know watches them.

And I come from a liberal background. And most of my family watches MSNBC and always talks about how FOX News is so conservatively biased. And I feel like there's - it's not any better to watch something like MSNBC that is so liberally biased because you're still getting such a bias.

So even if I don't necessarily always agree with what I hear on NPR, the way things are phrased, I appreciate the fact that you aren't putting your own personal slant and opinion out there and letting me make the choice myself.

SHEPARD: Well, Natasha, I very much appreciate your saying that. I would like to think that there could be a debate about this. But I don't feel that that's really been happening. So I'm glad to hear that at least one person agrees with me.

CONAN: Natasha, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

NATASHA: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Steven. Steven with us from Grand Rapids.

STEVEN (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks.

STEVEN: Okay. I just wanted to give you something by way of the fact that I think that terms that are used, like enhanced interrogation techniques, I don't find them anything more than a euphemism that's used to sidestep the issue and not really call it what it is.

Waterboarding, by any sane definition that has been embraced or created by any group of people or individuals on this planet other than those that are trying to save face for what they did, is torture.

CONAN: Steven, let me just…

STEVEN: (Unintelligible) by any other name or by any other method is murder. If you were to call it patty-cake, it would still be murder.

CONAN: Steven, let me ask you a question. And in this regards a controversy that was during the fighting that was going on in what used to be Yugoslavia, and the use of the term ethnic cleansing. And a lot of people objected to the term ethnic cleansing as a euphemism for genocide.

The fact is, by using the term ethnic cleansing, I think it's become recognized as a form of genocide. And an alternative definition, a kind of use of that technique, a technique that is used - well, ethnic cleansing is a pretty terrifying phrase in and of itself. So sometimes these euphemisms take on new meanings.

STEVEN: Yes. Even then, what you found is that outside of groups of people who were trying to save face are saying, no, that's not what's going on, everybody recognized that it was still genocide happening regardless of what it was called.

CONAN: Okay. Thank you, Steven.

Here's an email from Ryan in Fort Myers. I am no journalist, but I can understand when your guest says though that she has her own opinions on the matter. She never lets those be known. It's like the golden rule but transposed on to reporting - report on to others. And thank you for your restraint.

Let's see if we can get Michael on the line. Michael calling from St. Louis.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

MICHAEL: So my point is there's really no nuance when journalists describe like domestic violence or child abuse. So why is there nuance with describing torture?

CONAN: There's no really other side for child abuse or domestic violence.

MICHAEL: But isn't there different levels of child abuse and domestic violence, different aspects of specifics on how that is, you know, that crime…

SHEPARD: Sure. And Michael, if that were the case, and let's say that a man were arrested for burning cigarettes into his daughter's arm, you know, yes, he'd be arrested for child abuse. But we as journalists would describe what that is.

MICHAEL: As simply child abuse. Or that you'd describe the specific crime, is what you're saying.

SHEPARD: Yes.

CONAN: Yes.

SHEPARD: Yeah.

MICHAEL: Okay.

SHEPARD: I mean, so to say someone was arrested for child abuse, doesn't that make you wonder, well, what happened specifically? So if you say, well, you know, he kept her locked in a closet and, you know, burn cigarettes into her arm for 15 days straight, that would be child abuse, which is interesting to me that we use the word abuse. And in that case, that sounds also like torture.

CONAN: Yeah.

SHEPARD: So I…

CONAN: Well, who gets to define the term? That's part of his discussion.

SHEPARD: Absolutely.

CONAN: And by the way, Michael, thanks for the call. It's a term that's used in legal terminology. It's a term that's used in treaty language. It's also a term…

SHEPARD: Right.

CONAN: …used in common parlance, and different definitions apply.

SHEPARD: Well, and you think about what happens to suspects who are arrested by the police. They get slammed against the wall, they get kept up all night, sleep deprivation, all of the things that are called brutality or abuse.

CONAN: Alicia Shepard, thank you very much for your time today and thank you for taking our calls.

SHEPARD: My pleasure.

CONAN: Alicia Shepard is NPR's ombudsman. She joins us today in NPR Studio 3A. Again, you can go to the NPR Web site at npr.org to look at her posts on these issues.

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