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Should a News Organization Be "Partisan" When One Party Represents Falsehood?

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NPR (National Public Radio) has been criticized lately for using
phrases like "harsh interrogation techniques" to describe the American
use of waterboarding under the Bush administration. (Glenn
Greenwald has been among those critics.)


Recently the Ombudsman for NPR, Alicia C. Shepard, responded to critics
in an article that appears href="http://www.npr.org/ombudsman/2009/06/harsh_interrogation_techniques.html">here


Here is a crucial passage from that article. (I will follow it with a brief comment of my own.)


******************************


There has been no clear consensus on what constitutes torture, noted Brian Duffy, NPR's former managing editor in late April.


"President Bush said, 'We do not torture -- period.' Yet water-boarding
and several other tactics not approved in the Army Field Manual were
approved by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)
during his administration," said Duffy.


"During his confirmation hearings, Attorney General-designate Eric
Holder said clearly that water-boarding was torture, and President
Obama has said the same thing," he continued. "But the Obama
Administration has issued no overarching statement on the issue,
instead rescinding approval for CIA interrogators to use water-boarding
and the other tactics the Bush administration approved but not making
clear which tactics it does approve."


NPR decided to not use the term "torture" to describe techniques such
as water-boarding but instead uses "harsh interrogation tactics," Duffy
told me.
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I recognize that it's frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not
use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric.
But the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or
any debate. People have different definitions of torture and different
feelings about what constitutes torture. NPR's job is to give listeners
all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put
it in context.


"I understand the desire to 'call a spade a spade,' but it is not for
journalists to start labeling specific practices torture," said Duffy.
"That's what the debate is about -- what constitutes torture?"


To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the
characterization. For example, reporters could say that the U.S.
military poured water down a detainee's mouth and nostrils for 40
seconds. Or they could detail such self-explanatory techniques as
forcing detainees into cramped confines crawling with insects, or
forced to stand for hours along side a wall.


A basic rule of vivid writing is: "Show, Don't Tell."


******************
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I actually feel some sympathy for both sides of this dilemma, but
ultimately, even though the dilemma is real, one of those sides is not
worthy.


The side for which my sympathetic feelings are most strained are those
for NPR's feeling of a need to remain neutral in a battle that divides
our major parties.


It should be noted, however, that the statement that "the role of a
news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate," is way
too overdrawn. The American Nazi Party may declare that the
Holocaust never happened, but NPR does not feel compelled to speak of
the "alleged Holocaust." Nor, when speaking of our satellites
going around the earth, does NPR feel it must honor the views of the
Flat Earth Society.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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