Sunday, July 12, 2009

NPR ombudsman on torture

About a week and a half ago, I heard NPR's ombudsman, Alicia Shepherd, defending NPR's policy on refusing to identify waterboarding as torture. Her argument was that NPR had a journalistic responsibility not to take sides on any issue, and that to identify waterboarding as torture was to take a side. She actually wrote that "I believe that it is not the role of journalists to take sides or to characterize things."

I think this is not only ridiculous, but an abdication of journalistic responsibility in favor of a bogus view of reporting "objectivity" by using only "he said, she said" descriptions, to an extreme.

Here's what I posted to the NPR blog on July 2:
There is no reasonable debate about whether waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding has been legally determined to be criminal torture by U.S. courts in 1947, when Yukio Asano was sentenced to fifteen years hard labor for it (among other war crimes). Other Japanese war criminals, such as Kenji Dohihara, Seishiro Itagaki, Heitaro Kimura, Akira Muto, and Hideki Tojo, were tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for engaging in torture during WWII, including waterboarding, and several were executed for it.

U.S. soldiers who undergo waterboarding as part of SERE training receive that training in order to understand what torture is.

It is bad journalism to defend "there are two sides to every issue" as a form of phony objectivity. Sometimes there are more than two sides of merit, and sometimes there is only one (and there is *always* some nut who will take issue with any well-established claim). In this case, there is no reasonable argument by which waterboarding is not torture. It makes no more sense to call it "what some people refer to as torture" than it does to insert similar qualifications on the front of every noun used in a sentence on NPR.
Another commenter replied to point out that waterboarding has been legally torture for longer than that in the U.S.

I was glad to hear Adam Savage of Mythbusters, at TAM7, answer the question "what has been the biggest media failure of skepticism lately" by saying that the biggest failure has been the NPR ombudsman's statement that calling waterboarding torture is taking sides and they have to be "balanced."


Pierre Stromberg said...

Thanks for pointing this out. I've left my own comment on NPR's website.

Thomas Dimitri said...

Well written Jim. Of course water boarding is torture... that is why they went to the effort to perform the act.

If it wasn't psychologically effective, it would be pointless to attempt it.