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MEDIA REVULSION ALERT:

NPR Defends Torture-Based Reporting

But network's ombud agrees with critics

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Garrels and Inskeep being "appalled" by torture--without really saying so--while also finding it a useful tool for gathering information is a position not all that different from that of the torture advocates in the Bush administration.
11/5/07—Noting that an October 26 report based on torture-based confessions "generated a lot of response," on November 1 NPR's Morning Edition attempted to address the concerns voiced by FAIR activists and others. The explanation offered by reporter Anne Garrels and anchor Steve Inskeep dodged the main issues raised in FAIR's October 30 Action Alert. But NPR's new ombud Alicia Shepard agreed with the main criticisms made by FAIR activists, writing in an email response to listeners that "evidence obtained through torture is not credible, nor is it good journalistic practice."

Garrels and Inskeep raised several points irrelevant to the issue--stressing that journalists face serious danger reporting inside Iraq (which almost no one would challenge), and claiming that critics of this particular report would just rather not deal with the violent reality of that country.

Of course, no one has asked NPR to not report on the existence of torture in Iraq. Instead, FAIR asked that NPR not treat the coerced statements of obvious torture victims as credible sources of information.

On this point, Garrels still seems to disagree. When questioned by Inskeep, she did declare that she "had doubts" about the information, and that "the information that comes from victims of torture is always questionable"--something that was never made clear in the original report, a point Shepard made in her response to activists. Nonetheless, Garrels said she was persuaded by what she heard; when asked by Inskeep why she decided that "these were credible statements even if obtained by not-so-credible means," she replied that "the details that were given seemed to me to gel with other things that I had heard from people who had not been tortured."

Garrels gave one example of such details--an account of militia members posing as Sunnis and raping a Shiite girl. Why this would be considered evidence that the tortured were telling the truth is unclear; if Garrels had heard about the incident, it's likely that Baghdad militia members had as well, and could easily have induced their captives to "confess" to the crime.

Furthermore, the fact that militants are trying to inflame sectarian conflict in Iraq is well-known. The point of Garrels' story--and the line of questioning that led to her providing the details of the torture confession--was Iran's supposed involvement in such atrocities, a charge that fits in well with the United States' ongoing propaganda campaign against that country. Garrels gives no indication that she has any source for the explosive claims she relayed beyond the violently obtained testimony of torture victims. On this point, Shepard agreed, writing: "If there was news in Garrels' piece, it would be that NPR has definitive proof that Iran is behind recent violence. But that can't be confirmed on the say-so of torture victims in front of their captors."

Inskeep compared Garrels' reporting tactics to police work: "So you were working almost like a police officer in that sense and taking this information that might well be corrupted information, but trying to match it up with other facts that you knew from your long experience in Iraq." Of course, journalists are not police officers. But one would hope that most law enforcement officials would appreciate that information gleaned from torture (by a gang of outlaws, no less) was worthless--not the starting point for a journalistic investigation.

Elsewhere in the segment Garrels stated that NPR was "extremely uncomfortable with the situation," and that "I think I made it clear I was as appalled as listeners were by the torture that had clearly occurred before I got there."

Being "appalled" by torture--without really saying so--while also finding it a useful tool for gathering information is a position not all that different from that of the torture advocates in the Bush administration. They, too, likely find it unpleasant, but deem it necessary for their own purposes. That NPR would adopt the same mindset is disappointing.

FAIR thanks all the activists who wrote to NPR. The full transcript of the follow-up report appears below (on FAIR's site), along with the response from Alicia Shepard.


Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is a nonpartisan media watchdog organization. Visit http://fair.org for more information, or share your opinion about this story by writing to fair@fair.org. Republished in the Chronicle with permission from F.A.I.R.


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This story was published on November 5, 2007.