by Geoffrey Cowan
Nothing has the capacity to frame political debate more successfully than a good turn of phrase, characterization, or metaphor; nor can anything do more to pervert democratic discourse than inaccurate, imprecise, or misleading language. George Orwell understood the game and called its bluff more than sixty years ago. In words that offered an eerie forecast of the rhetoric of Vietnam, he noted that “defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine- gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”
He understood, too, that political advocates trade in the use of language. Since there is “no agreed definition” of the word democracy, Orwell noted, “the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy.” This is one area where the world has not really changed since 1946, when Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language.” Nor, indeed since a quarter of a century before that, when Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion described the role of “the publicity man” who shapes images for reporters, acting as “censor and propagandist, responsible only to his employers,” presenting the truth “only as it accords with the employers’ conception of his own interest.” But while political advocates and press agents have always had every right (and every incentive) to peddle their own version of the truth, and to spin their own clever phrases and metaphors, journalists should not blindly parrot their words. And once in a while, they don’t.
In late November 2006, when NBC News first used the words “civil war” to describe events in Iraq, the network took the unusual stand of defying the government in defining the war. The phrase had been employed for years by some observers inside and outside of government. But NBC’s public (and publicized) action moved the words to the forefront of public discourse. In doing so, the network demonstrated one of the most important functions of the mainstream media. Usually without much internal deliberation or thought, the major press outlets effectively define the terms of America’s public discourse. But the careful choice of language—of the words used to describe ourselves, our adversaries, our choices, and our debates—is a core responsibility of the press.
The decision to call events in Iraq a “civil war” provides an excellent case study. As early as 2004, some cia officers had been using that phrase, as had some congressional leaders, including Senator Joseph Biden. During the next two years, much of the American public came to the same conclusion. In March 2006, a Washington Post poll found that a majority of Americans was afraid that the fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims would lead to a civil war. That summer, a number of analysts and news outlets reported that there was a debate brewing in the administration over the issue—with the CIA calling for a more honest assessment and the White House resisting. President Bush made the administration’s views clear. In March 2006, Iyad Allawi, who was once Iraq’s interim prime minister, used the term.
“Do you agree with Mr. Allawi that Iraq has fallen into a civil war?” a reporter asked the president at a news conference. The response was unequivocal: “I do not.”
Meanwhile, various news organizations were struggling with terminology. “Sectarian violence” seemed too soft. “Civil war” seemed too definitive—and too politically sensitive. As Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, later explained to Brooke Gladstone on National Public Radio’s On the Media: “One of the reasons for not using it was, you know, honestly, a concern that because the White House has contended that this is not a civil war, that using the phrase amounted to a kind of unnecessary political statement.” So the Times used qualifiers, Keller explained, quoting other sources or modifying the harshness of the term “civil war” by describing Iraq as “on the brink of civil war.”
In the late fall of 2006, the Los Angeles Times, without fanfare, started to use the term “civil war,” but those words, and their implications, did not fully become national news or enter the national consciousness until late November. Then, after a particularly bloody few days in Iraq, NBC News decided to act. Richard Engel, an NBC reporter who has been in Iraq longer than any other American television correspondent, had long felt that the country was in a civil war. On Sunday, November 26, Alexandra Wallace, who was a vice president of NBC News, consulted Engel and anchor Brian Williams, as well as a group of military leaders and historians, in an effort to determine where “sectarian violence” ends and “civil war” begins. Their view was unanimous. NBC knew that its position would be controversial. But the news division was convinced that Iraq had become a civil war.
The next morning, host Matt Lauer announced on the Today show that NBC had made a formal decision to use that term. Recreating some of the elements of the discussion from the previous day, Lauer engaged in a lengthy on-air dialogue with retired general Barry McCaffrey, in which they discussed NBC’s decision, the meaning of the phrase “civil war,” and the arguments for and against applying that term to events on the ground in Iraq. Predictably, the White House protested. “While the situation on the ground is very serious,” a spokesman for the National Security Council told reporters on Air Force One as it was taking the president to meetings in the Middle East, neither Prime Minister Maliki nor the Bush White House “believe that Iraq is in a civil war.” Some conservative media critics went further, repeating the familiar charge that the press was really against American troops. “You have violent, out-of-control chaos, not civil war,” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly protested. “Of course, the American media is not helping anyone by oversimplifying the situation and rooting for the USA to lose in Iraq.”
But while the fight over the phrase “civil war” was largely treated as a political debate, and in some quarters as a political decision, it was, in fact, much more than that. In deciding what words to use to identify the conflict, NBC was helping to insure that its reporting was accurate.
Indeed, there are times when good journalists need to be as concerned with the accuracy of their language as they are with the accuracy of their facts. Unless the mainstream press uses the correct language to describe issues of public policy, then readers, viewers, and government leaders are unlikely to understand, discuss, and analyze them honestly and meaningfully.