NPR: ‘Murder’ a Controversial Concept

Author’s note: When I started to write an article criticizing NPR ombudsman Alicia C. Shepherd for refusing to admit that torture is torture, I found myself harping on the obvious. So instead I wrote the following.

National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia C. Shepherd today stated that the concept of murder is not clear and, therefore, NPR will in the future refuse to use the term "murder." Instead, NPR will use the more neutral term "harsh techniques for ending people’s lives." Ms. Shepherd stated:

"The problem is that the word ‘murder’ is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that murder is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed."

Blogger Scott Horton criticized NPR’s refusal to use the word "murder." Horton wrote:

"So in not using the word ‘murder,’ you are toeing the line the government put down and you are being hypocritical if you previously had used the word."

Mr. Horton noted that the New York Times used the word "murder" in its reporting on the Communist Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

Ms. Shepherd replied:

"It’s a no-win case for journalists. If journalists use the words ‘harsh techniques for ending people’s lives,’ they can be seen as siding with the White House and the language that some U.S. officials, particularly in the Bush administration, prefer. If journalists use the word ‘murder,’ then they can be accused of siding with those who are particularly and visibly still angry at the previous administration."

Ms. Shepherd added, "After all, murderers have feelings too."

Many regular listeners of NPR objected to NPR’s unwillingness to characterize the involuntary taking of people’s lives as "murder." To that, Ms. Shepherd replied that she was "shilling for strong, credible journalism that is as objective as humanly possible." She also stated, "I believe that it is not the role of journalists to take sides or to characterize things." When asked if the sky is blue, she hesitated to say, adding, "Some people think it’s not."

Ms. Shepherd added:

"But no matter how many distinguished groups – the International Red Cross, the UN High Commissioners – say taking innocent life is murder, there are responsible people who say it is not. Former president Bush, former vice president Cheney, their staff, and their supporters obviously believed that killing 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. So, it is not an open-and-shut case that everyone believes killing innocent people to be murder. Many in NPR’s audience obviously believe it is, but others do not."

When asked how she would judge people to be responsible if she thinks a good journalist does not "characterize things," she did not answer.

Ms. Shepherd ended with a plea for objectivity:

"I hope that most NPR listeners would be willing to give some credence to an alternative viewpoint – a viewpoint that says journalists should strive to avoid taking sides and using loaded language in a contentious debate about the rightness or wrongness of murder."

In other news, an NPR spokesman said there was no truth to the rumor that, henceforth, NPR would refer to tax increases as "revenue enhancements."

[After writing this parody, I listened to Bob Garfield’s excellent interview of Ms. Shepherd about the use of the word "torture." He came up with the same analogy with murder that I did. His best line (from 3:29 to 3:49) was the following:

"NPR certainly has no difficulty calling murder ‘murder.’ It doesn’t call it ‘enhanced argumentation technique.’ The terrorists call themselves ‘freedom fighters,’ but NPR calls acts of terror ‘acts of terror.’ In other respects, NPR hasn’t taken a position against, you know, nouns. Why this one in particular?"]

Copyright © 2009 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at