‘Civil’ Disobedience Spreads — ‘NYT’ Adjusts Terms on Iraq

By: E&P Staff

In the wake of the highly-publicized NBC and MSNBC decision to start referring to the conflict in Iraq as a “civil war,” other media outlets, which have long used phrases such as “sectarian violence,” are re-considering their language in this regard.

“After consulting with our reporters in the field and the editors who
directly oversee this coverage, we have agreed that Times correspondents may describe the conflict in Iraq as a civil war when they and their editors believe it is appropriate,” Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, revealed in a statement. “It’s hard to argue that this war does not fit the generally accepted definition of civil war. (See Ed Wong’s story on the subject in Sunday’s paper.)

“We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect. The main shortcoming of “civil war” is that, like other labels, it fails to capture the complexity of what is happening on the ground. The war in Iraq is, in addition to being a civil war, an occupation, a Baathist insurgency, a sectarian conflict, a front in a war against terrorists, a scene of criminal gangsterism and a cycle of vengeance. We believe ‘civil war’ should not become reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated.”

The Washington Post, however, has made no such announcement. Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, told E&P’s Joe Strupp: “We just describe what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

On his MSNBC “Hardball” show on Monday night, host Chris Matthews asked the Post’s Pultizer Prize winning reporter Dana Priest about this issue. Priest replied: “Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what?s the thinking on that — and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly ? and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this ? absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

The Los Angeles Times has used “civil war” for a few weeks but the Boston Globe, according to an article there today, revealed, “Before deciding its policy on the term, the Globe is weighing the judgments of the news organizations that have reporters regularly in Iraq.”

The Globe did note: “Observers said the media’s willingness to reject the White House’s depiction of events was reminiscent of 1968, when Cronkite filmed a Vietnam documentary and offered his belief that the United States was losing the war. ‘There is a clear parallel,’ Edward C. Pease , a journalism professor at the University of Utah, said of yesterday’s NBC broadcast during a morning time-slot that is now far more popular than the evening news. ‘The way the media frames things helps lead the public perception.'”

FoxNews has said it does not plan to change its terminology.

“Words have power, and naming it a civil war does begin to shape people’s perception of what’s happening there,” Thomas Hollihan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication who studies political rhetoric, told the Los Angeles Times. The midterm election results may have emboldened news outlets to adopt a characterization the White House has rejected, he added. “The media has, by and large, been very fearful of being perceived of being liberally biased,” Hollihan said. “Now that the election has occurred, there may be more license on the part of the media to say what the public has been feeling.”

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