Alicia C. Shepard, an award-winning media critic who as NPR’s ombudsman backed the organization’s refusal to label waterboarding as torture, died on April 1 at her home in Arlington, Va. She was 69.
Her husband, David Marsden, said the cause was complications of lung cancer.
In a diverse journalistic career, Ms. Shepard was a reporter, a university professor, the author of a book about the Watergate journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and, for nearly four years, NPR’s ombudsman, the listeners’ representative tasked with bringing transparency to the public radio network’s news-gathering practices.
In June 2009, she wrote on her blog that she had received a “slew of emails” that took issue with NPR News’s use of the phrases “enhanced interrogation tactics” and “harsh interrogation techniques” instead of “torture” to describe what terrorism suspects held by the George W. Bush administration during the Iraq war had been forced to endure.
“Some say that by not using the word ‘torture,’ NPR is serving as right-wing apologists for waterboarding and other methods of extracting information,” Ms. Shepard wrote. President Bush refused to call waterboarding torture, but in April 2009 President Barack Obama did.
Ms. Shepard suggested that rather than labeling enhanced measures as torture, reporters should simply describe the tactics — saying, for example, that “the U.S. military poured water down a detainee’s mouth and nostrils for 40 seconds” or forced detainees “into cramped confines crawling with insects.”
In Salon, the columnist Glenn Greenwald harshly criticized Ms. Shepard’s defense of NPR, writing that the network was “doing nothing other than misleading its listeners by refusing to apply the term and instead adopting Orwellian government euphemisms.”
Soon after writing her blog post, Ms. Shepard told Bob Garfield, the co-host of the NPR program “On the Media”: “If I were asked personally whether or not pouring water down someone’s nose and throat for 20 seconds constitutes torture, I would say personally that I think it does. I totally understand, though, that a news organization needs to be as neutral as possible, and putting out the facts and letting the audience decide whether something is good or bad, right or wrong.”
Alicia Cobb Shepard (who was known widely as Lisa) was born on April 27, 1953, in Boston and grew up in Montclair, N.J. Her father, Whiting Shepard, was a senior vice president of sales at Allied Chemical. Her mother, Florence (Barthman) Shepard, was a homemaker who, after her husband’s death in 1965, pursued acting and held various jobs, including manager of the shop at the Montclair Art Museum.
Ms. Shepard attended Lake Forest College in Illinois before transferring to George Washington University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1978. She was a reporter for Scripps League Newspapers in Washington until 1982, when she moved to The San Jose Mercury News (now The Mercury News) in California. She spent five years there as a reporter before leaving to take a sailing trip to the South Pacific with her husband at the time, Robert Hodierne, which lasted almost three years.
They bought a 32-foot sailboat, sold everything they owned, learned to sail and set out on the ocean with Cutter, their nine-month-old son.
“We left California seeking the exotic, places where man hasn’t built a polluting power plant, paved the dirt roads and plunked antennas down on thatched huts,” she wrote in The Tampa Bay Times after the 15,000-mile trip ended in 1990.
She and Mr. Hodierne, who had married in 1983, divorced in 1998.
After teaching English in Japan through a BBC training program, Ms. Shepard resumed her journalism career. From 1993 to 2000, she wrote for The American Journalism Review; her media criticism there earned her three awards from the National Press Club. Later, while working for the Newseum, the now-closed Washington museum dedicated to news and journalism, she collaborated with Cathy Trost on “Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11” (2002).
Soon after that, she began work on “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate” (2007), a look at the parallel lives of the two reporters for The Washington Post whose investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal helped lead to the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon and elevated them to the top rung of American journalism.
Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein sold their archive of notes and other papers for $5 million to the University of Texas at Austin in 2003. Ms. Shepard relied regularly on the discoveries she made in the archive, including a handwritten note from Mr. Woodward that offered insight into the importance of a small percentage of the hundreds of people he and Mr. Bernstein interviewed.
“The bulk of the information,” he wrote, “came from 65 people.”
The book revealed that Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein had angered Barry Sussman, one of The Post editors with whom they worked most closely on the Watergate story. Mr. Sussman held lingering resentment about not being the third author of their book “All the President’s Men.”
“I don’t have anything good to say about either one of them,” Mr. Sussman, who died last June, told Ms. Shepard.
Reviewing her book in The Washington Post, Samuel G. Freedman wrote that it “efficiently synthesizes much of the existing coverage of Woodward and Bernstein, augmented by some energetic research of her own, but it told me very little I didn’t know before opening the cover.” Publishers Weekly, though, praised it for providing “an insightful, highly readable study for fans of journalism, U.S. politics and the work of ‘Woodstein.’”
After the book’s publication, Ms. Shepard was hired as an adjunct professor of media ethics at Georgetown University; her three years there overlapped with her time at NPR. She later taught journalism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and media ethics at the University of Arkansas.
For several months in 2014, she served as digital editor of a start-up news website in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she trained young journalists. After that, she spent a year as a senior press liaison at the United States Agency for International Development, also in Kabul.
At her death, she had nearly finished a memoir about her diagnosis of lung cancer and the recovery of her husband, Mr. Marsden, from brain cancer. The book, tentatively called “The Luckiest Unlucky Couple,” is expected to be published soon.
In addition to her husband and her son, Cutter Hodierne, a filmmaker, Ms. Shepard is survived by two stepsons, Ted and Billy Marsden; a grandson; a brother, J. Powers Shepard; and a half sister, Emily Riddel.
In her final column as NPR’s ombudsman, in 2011, Ms. Shepard described the loneliness of the job. “The public,” she wrote, “thinks you are a shill for NPR, and NPR employees think you are an internal investigations unit.”
A typical conversation with an employee, she said, went this way:
“Me: ‘How are you?’
“Staffer (Long pause). ‘I don’t know. It depends on why you are calling.’”
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