- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2006

“Civil war” has joined “terrorist” and “undocumented immigrant” in the growing lexicon of terms that prompt press organizations to get touchy about their coverage.

In the name of neutrality, print and broadcast journalists alike have declared moratoriums on words deemed inflammatory or judgmental in the years since the September 11 attacks.

Neutrality might not be the motivation behind NBC’s decision to announce that Iraq is now engaged in a civil war, despite statements from the White House to the contrary.

“NBC has decided the change in terminology is warranted, that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized a civil war,” “Today” show host Matt Lauer said Monday.

“News organizations claim they don’t want to be political in their coverage. But this declaration strikes me as very political. This is NBC saying, ‘Hey, George Bush is delusional, and we’re not going to play along.’ That’s the tenor of it,” Tim Graham of the Media Research Center said yesterday.

“The pomposity of the judgment is also troubling. The network is clearly seeking a tipping point to declare that the U.S. is losing Iraq,” Mr. Graham added. “But the phenomenon of selective description is not new. How many papers and networks refused to call Hamas a ‘terrorist’ group in the past?”

Whether NBC’s position resonates with the public remains to be seen.

“Frankly, I don’t think that a judgment NBC has made is as remotely important as the actual events on the ground in Iraq,” said Alex Jones of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

The network is exercising typical editorial decision-making, Mr. Jones said, “but I don’t think it’s going to change any minds out there.”

Some cast NBC’s public declaration as a benchmark that could potentially sway public opinion — and press outlets themselves.

“Let’s cut right to what this ‘civil war’ fanfare in the media is really all about: It has nothing to do with ongoing violence in Iraq, and everything to do with the fact that these media organizations, struggling to maintain their relevance in a rapidly changing industry feel the need to assert themselves and remind the public of their importance,” Stephen Spruiell of National Review Online said yesterday.

An Editor & Publisher survey revealed that reporters and editors at the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor and McClatchy Newspapers are allowed to use the term “civil war,” while The Washington Post still opts for “sectarian strife.” CNN leaves the hair-splitting decisions to individual editors and reporters. The Associated Press, CBS and ABC are undecided; Fox News has not made its policies public.

It can be a work in progress: Earlier this year, three minority journalism groups asked the American press to avoid terms such as “illegal alien” because it was “dehumanizing,” recommending “undocumented worker” or “economic refugee” as less-offensive alternatives.

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