Thursday, July 2, 2009

More "vivid writing" from NPR ombudsman

(Sorry for the extended lapse between posts -- I was completely off the grid for a few days and I'm still scrambling to catch up with everything I missed.)

So -- NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard continues on her merry way defending NPR's practice of refusing to call torture "torture." Glenn Greenwald (with whom Shepard has refused to have an interview) continues to be all over this, and Shepard's stance has been widely criticized. She's now done a couple of radio interviews with NPR affiliates and will do another on Talk of the Nation today; she also has up a new posting on the NPR website assuring readers/listeners that "Your Voices Have Been Heard."

This post is so outrageous to anyone who cares about (a) the integrity of the English language or (b) the integrity of journalism that I don't even know where to begin. Let's start here:

"I believe that it is not the role of journalists to take sides or to characterize things."
To set aside for a moment the absurdity of the idea that calling clear acts of torture by their proper name is to "take sides,"... um, she believes it is not the role of journalists to "characterize things"? Really? What on earth are they supposed to do instead? What would practicing journalism even mean if it were forbidden to "characterize things"? And anyway, terms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" are also a "characterization" of "things" -- albeit a euphemistic mischaracterization.

Shepard goes on to insist that

"instead of using loaded language -- and the word "torture" is loaded -- I advocate that NPR describe interrogation techniques in detail."
Okay, now I happen to agree that the word "torture" is loaded -- but that is because the act of torture is loaded, and loathsome. It is indeed "loaded" to call torture by its proper name because it requires owning up, head-on, to the sorts of abuses Americans have been responsible for. Calling it something else may duck out of that act of acknowledgement and responsibility-taking, but it does not make the truth go away, any more than it would make the historical fact of slavery in America go away if NPR chose to avoid the "loaded" word "slavery" and refer to the practice as "enhanced labor ownership techniques." (Later in the piece Shepard continues to insist, as she did in her last piece, that "torture" is a "coded" term for acts of torture. It's hard to even coherently criticize the logic here -- like trying to explain why someone is wrong when they claim that black is white. "Torture" is not a coded term for torture. It is its proper name.)

Shepard's main argument for continuing to insist that there's some sort of "debate" about what torture "is" seems to come in this section:

"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."
By "responsible people" here, I can only assume she means "the very people responsible for instituting policies that systematized torture."

Seriously -- can she not even manage to cite anyone here who was not an architect of the torture regime as the other "side" in this debate? And why are they due some respect for their obviously self-serving and nakedly reality-contradicting "views"? What is respectable about them? What new insight about the nature of the concept of "torture" have Dick Cheney & co. arrived at, thus upending hundreds of years of historical precedent for what constitutes "torture," that demands we treat this as a two-sided "debate" between serious people?

On a related note, for those who still have doubts about whether US agents "tortured," there have been some amazingly rich and detailed posts in the last few days from Greenwald, Marcy Wheeler, and Andy Worthington on deaths resulting from torture. I should have mentioned Wheeler by name in my last post on the different roles of images and documents in anti-torture campaigns -- someone give that woman a medal (or at least contribute to the fundraiser on her website). The ACLU Accountability Project is also incredible.

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