I published an article by the above title today, criticizing major media outlets for their avoiding the term terrorist in favor of some twenty synonyms. The article has prompted new information from readers.
- A CNN viewer notes a marked spike in use of the word terrorist by the station newsreaders and reporters on Sep. 4, one day after the atrocity at Beslan, with 6 usages in just over a half-hour period. The viewer characterizes the T-word being said "more times in a few minutes than in the past year."
- In the South Asian context, the press and politicians use such super-euphemisms as intruders, ultras and miscreants.
- In the Israeli context, when describing an actual terrorist attack, the Hebrew press always uses the word "terrorist" but when describing, say, an IDF operation against Hamas, Tanzim, etc., it will most often use the term "Hamas activists" (pe'ilay Hamas) or "Tanzim activists" (pe'ilay Tanzim). Also common are the terms "Hamas man" (ish Hamas) or "Hamas men" (anshay Hamas).
- Reuters, one of the outlets I named, has posted a page with its "Editorial Policy" that includes a question, "Why don't you describe terrorists as terrorists?" and this reply: "As part of a long-standing policy to avoid the use of emotive words, we do not use terms like 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter' unless they are in a direct quote or are otherwise attributable to a third party. We do not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead report their actions, identity and background so that readers can make their own decisions based on the facts." (For an analysis of this news agency, see Tom Gross, "The Case of Reuters: A news agency that will not call a terrorist a terrorist.")
- The Boston Globe's ombudsman, Christine Chinlund, took on the vexed matter of when to use the term terrorism a year ago. She acknowledged that the Globe routinely describes Hamas, "whose suicide bombers maim and kill Israeli citizens," as a militant, not a terrorist, group, and that this policy "infuriates" some readers. Chinlund justified the terminology by noting that tagging Hamas as a terrorist organization "is to ignore its far more complex role in the Middle East drama" and then fell back on the hoary myth that "One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter." She reserved the terrorist label "for specific acts of violence," and preferred that it not be applied broadly to groups. Oh, and all that said, she endorsed the Globe referring to Al-Qaeda as a "terrorist network." Go figure. (September 7, 2004)
Sep. 9, 2004 update: Don Wycliff, the Chicago Tribune's "public editor," justifies his paper's policy of avoiding the word terrorist:
"How can you ... describe these folks as anything but 'terrorists'?" asked Jim Ihlenfeld of Aurora, in one of the more temperate such messages. Our eschewal of the word "terrorist" was in keeping with a stylebook policy adopted several years ago, a policy that is in keeping with the journalistic purpose of the news pages: to provide as complete, thorough and unbiased an account as possible of the important news of the day.
No intellectually honest person can deny that "terrorist" is a word freighted with negative judgment and bias. So we sought terms that carried no such judgment. At the same time, our news stories—and photos—have not stinted on detail about what the hostage-takers did, to whom they did it and what the deadly results have been. No intellectually honest person can contend he or she was denied the information necessary to figure out what name the hostage-takers might deserve.
Well, this intellectually honest person says the issue in dispute, raised by Jim Ihlenfeld and myself, is not the substance of the reporting but weasel-words like the Tribune's "militant" and "rebel." In this passage, Wycliff again demonstrates that the Chicago Tribune is editorially the worst big-city newspaper in the United States and Wycliff the country's most irresponsible ombudsman. [July 24, 2007 update: Steven Emerson confirms the accuracy of this opinion at "Tribune's Former Public Editor: Hamas Operative Is An Asset To Chicago Community."]
Sep. 14, 2004 update: Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper, ran a story today (ascribing it to Agence France-Presse, but a search finds no such AFP story) that goes beyond euphemism and breaks ground by praising terrorists as freedom fighters:
SRINAGAR, Sept 13: Freedom fighters shot dead three members of a family including a woman and killed another woman in a house bombing in occupied Kashmir overnight, police claims on Monday. The three family members were shot dead overnight in the southern Poonch district, a police spokesman said, adding the motive was not known. Kashmiri fighters also hurled a grenade at the home of a Communist party activist, injuring his two daughters in the Kulgam area. One of the daughters died in hospital later. -AFP
Sep. 15, 2004 update: V. Zavolsky, a translator/interpreter based in Moscow, writes me about the U.S. government-supported Radio Svoboda, which broadcasts in the Russian language. He reports on some of the "super-euphemisms" it uses, including "the Chechen resistance (just like the French Resistance to fascists during WWII) and members of the armed underground." These are in addition to such terms as militants (boeviki in Russian) and rebels (povstantsy) that already feature in my collection. "But Radio Svoboda never uses the word terrorist, even when speaking about the monsters who shot kids in their backs in Beslan." He goes on:
The same thing occurred two years ago during the terrorist attack in the Nord Ost theater in Moscow which led to hundreds of hostages getting killed. (Interestingly the BBC did call the perpetrators in that case "terrorists"). Dozens of infuriated messages on the http://www.svoboda.org/ website, including mine, protest this use of language, but to no avail.
Sep. 17, 2004 update: CanWest Publications, Canada's largest newspaper chain, routinely alters Reuters dispatches dealing with terrorism to bleach out the euphemisms. Here is one example from Sep. 13 and cited by the CBC today.
- Reuters: "the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has been involved in a four-year-old revolt against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank."
- National Post: "the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group that has been involved in a four-year-old campaign of violence against Israel."
Reuters is complaining to CanWest about this editing. David Schlesinger, Reuters' global managing editor, says that CanWest has crossed a line from editing for style, to editing the substance and slant of news from the Middle East, which he deems unacceptable. "If they want to put their own judgment into it, they're free to do that, but then they shouldn't say that it's by a Reuters reporter." To which I say that if Reuters is not accurate, as least it is consistent.
Sep. 18, 2004 update: In a forceful editorial, the Ottawa Citizen (one of the CanWest chain of papers) replied to its critics:
The CBC and some wire services prefer terms such as "activist," "militant" or "gunmen." These media organizations argue that "terrorist" is a subjective term, laden with too much emotion, and that the imperative to be impartial prohibits journalists from using it.
We reject the argument. Terrorism is a technical term. It describes a modus operandi, a tactic. We side with security professionals who define terrorism as the deliberate targeting of civilians in pursuit of a political goal. Those who bombed the nightclub in Bali were terrorists. Suicide bombers who strap explosives to their bodies and blow up people eating in a pizza parlour are terrorists. The men and women who took a school full of hostages in Beslan, Russia, and shot some of the children in the back as they tried to flee to safety were terrorists. We as journalists do not violate our impartiality by describing them as such.
Ironically, it is supposedly neutral terms like "militant" that betray a bias, insofar as they have a sanitizing effect. Activists for various political causes can be "militant," but they don't take children hostage.
Sep. 20, 2004 update: In an interview with the New York Times, Schlesinger revealed the real reasons for Reuters' prohibition on the word terrorist:
Mr. Schlesinger said he was concerned that changes like those made at CanWest could lead to "confusion" about what Reuters is reporting and possibly endanger its reporters in volatile areas or situations. "My goal is to protect our reporters and protect our editorial integrity," he said.
Sep. 21, 2004 update: HonestReporting.com comments on the above statement by Schlesinger in the Times:
This is a stunning admission ― Reuters' top international editor openly acknowledges that one of the main reasons his agency refuses to call terrorists 'terrorists' has nothing to do with editorial pursuit of objectivity, but rather is a response to intimidation from thugs and their supporters.
Sep. 22, 2004 update: Canadian Arab and Muslim lobbies are calling on the government to investigate CanWest's editorial policy. The Council on American-Islamic Relations-Canada filed a complaint with the Ontario Press Council against CanWest and the Ottawa Citizen on Sep. 17 for "altering words and phrases in wire copy stories regarding the Middle East" which it interprets as a "troubling bias against Arabs and Muslims." The organization therefore calls for a "full and thorough investigation" of this practice. Likewise, Mazen Chouaib of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations today accused CanWest (in the pages of the rival Globe and Mail, no less) of "incitement and propagation of anti-Arab hate" and called on Parliament to take "a hard look" at the impact and effect of media concentration in Canada.
Comment: The stench of censorship clearly emanates from these appeals for investigations and hard-looks.
Sep. 23, 2004 update: In a strong column in CanWest's flagship paper, the National Post, Andrea Levin of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (known as CAMERA), a specialist in media criticism, writes that avoiding use of the word terrorist is "tantamount to taking sides — the terrorist's side." She concludes that "For Reuters' clients, including the National Post, correcting such language is simply a matter of good journalism. … newspapers have a duty to their readers to give preference to truth over obfuscation." And Jonathan Tobin makes the important point that
To describe the Palestinian campaign of terror as nothing more than a "revolt against Israeli occupation" is to buy into the myth that theirs is a battle for freedom, rather than an effort to destroy Israel and kill its people. When Reuters and similar news sources obscure this fact and veil these atrocities in nonjudgmental copy, it is they who are editorializing, not the people at CanWest.
Sep. 25, 2004 update: Kelly McParland, an editor at the National Post, raises the subject about the CanWest decision to change the description of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to "a terrorist group," saying: "I know something about this situation, because I'm the one who changed the wording. The reason was simple: The original story didn't come close to conveying to readers what al-Aqsa is really all about." She makes a good argument for using the word terrorist and concludes on this note:
From the point of view of the wire services, it's possible to understand why they would be wary of demonizing organizations as transparently deserving of it as al-Qaeda or al-Aqsa. The wires—Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse—have to operate in dozens of countries, transmitting copy to subscribers in dozens, maybe hundreds, more. That's a lot of differing cultures to keep happy, and so they strive to find words that are the least likely to offend.
They also need to protect their people. It's dangerous enough being an outsider in Iraq today, without such madmen as Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi targeting you as his next victim because some editor in London or New York decides to describe him as a terrorist. So they have an excuse. But the subscribers who buy the service are not obliged to handcuff themselves with the same restrictions.
Sep. 27, 2004 update: More debate from Canada on terminology; Ezra Levant in the Western Standard excoriates the CBC for use of the term "tragedy" in connection with Beslan, implying "Nothing evil here."
Sep. 28, 2004 update: David Ouellette points out that in contrast to the would-be censorship by Arab and Muslim groups in Canada (see the Sep. 22 update, above), a number of courageous Arab journalists writing in Arabic in the Middle East are "calling Islamic terrorism by its name." He provides six important examples and notes that "they go as far as explaining that Islamist terrorism is a result of the Islamic culture's failures in the modern age." Ouellette then draws a breath-taking conclusion from this trend:
Sociologists of Islam in the West have long argued that if liberal reform is ever to sweep over Islam and its lands, it will originate in the West where Muslims interiorize liberal democratic values. But judging by the uproar caused by the use of the T-word in Canadian dailies at Reuters and among Arab and Muslim advocacy groups, the sociologists' prophecy is taking on the form of a pipe dream. If such reform is ever going to happen in the Muslim world, like all self-improvement, these Arab writers show it is going to come from within.
Sep. 29, 2004 update: Leave it to an academic to come up with an even worse synonym for terrorist. The Peninsula, a Qatari paper, reports that Henry Laurens, a professor at the Collège de France and author of a two-volume study, La question de Palestine, finds that "Hezbollah and Hamas are not terrorists but nationalists." Asked about "terror attacks" in Iraq and Israel, Laurens replied that, instead of using the word terrorist, he would prefer to describe them as "attacks, kidnappings or murders."
Oct. 6, 2004 update: Sandro Magister of the Italian magazine L'espresso notes about the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, finding that it too is afflicted by political correctness:
A day does not go by that the newspaper does not make note of "attacks," "assaults," "kidnappings," "violence," and "assassinations" carried out by Muslims. But not even once does the paper apply that description to the authors of these terrorist acts. … The car bombs detonated in Baghdad on September 30 in the midst of dozens of Iraqi children attending a celebration for the inauguration of a new water conduit, killing 37 of them, were chronicled by the official newspaper of the Holy See under the caption: "another day of ordinary violence."
There is a Realpolitik motivation behind this understatement from Vatican authorities and their newspaper: silence on the Islamic origin of the terrorist offensive is the price paid to protect Christians from more serious threats, and in particular the Christians who live in Muslim countries.
Oct. 12, 2004 update: The National Post is in a feisty mood, justifying its use of the term "Muslim terrorist" on the grounds that religion does matter with regard to many terrorist attacks, "by the terrorists' own account." The paper then goes on to quote its own editorial from December 7, 2001, "Say it: Muslim terrorist."
What do al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Pakistan's Harakat ul-Mujahidin and Egypt's al-Jihad have in common? Not just that they are made up of people who happen to worship Allah, but that they fight with the explicit aim of destroying secular governments and instating Muslim theocracies. "Muslim terrorist" is therefore an entirely apt term. The religion of such terrorists is not incidental to their terrorist acts as is the case with, say, Timothy McVeigh or Spain's Basques. Islam is their raison d'être, their inspiration, their call to battle, their means of recruitment and, in the second before they explode themselves, their great comfort.
Oct. 14, 2004 update: After noting the twenty euphemisms I found, Grant Jones points out another term in FrontPageMag.com:
A twenty-first euphemism is now coming into vogue: "the Iraqi resistance." Michael Moore has become a cheerleader for the "resistance." He states on his website, "The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not 'insurgents' or 'terrorists' or 'The Enemy.' They are the Revolution, the Minutemen..." (michaelmoore.com, April 14, 2004)
Feb. 14, 2005 update: In a report on the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post refers to Hizbullah as "an armed Shiite Muslim political movement that operates in the south" of Lebanon.
March 13, 2005 update: Not to be left behind, Steven Erlanger of the New York Times calls Hamas "the Islamic group that combines philanthropy and militancy."
July 8, 2005 update: Ah, but when violence strikes close to home – for example, on the London underground – it's suddenly terrorism, no longer militancy or activism. Steven Plaut skewers the British press for its rank hypocrisy at "Britain Suddenly Discovers the 'T' Word."
July 11, 2005 update: The Australian Broadcast Corporation slyly got around the dilemma of calling the London attacks terrorism by referring to them as "what the British Government calls" the London terror attacks.
July 12, 2005 update: "BBC edits out the word terrorist" reads the Daily Telegraph headline, and it goes on to explain:
The BBC has re-edited some of its coverage of the London Underground and bus bombings to avoid labelling the perpetrators as "terrorists", it was disclosed yesterday. Early reporting of the attacks on the BBC's website spoke of terrorists but the same coverage was changed to describe the attackers simply as "bombers."
I noted over a year ago an early example of exactly this same re-editing. Here is an excerpt of my June 7, 2004 update at "Calling a Terrorist a Terrorist":
look up the CBS documentary on 9/11 in the BBC search engine and you'll find a link to "9/11, the documentary marking the first anniversary of the US terrorist attacks." But then click on the link itself and find that the word terrorist is bleached out of the text. (I have cached the search engine page here, in case the BBC decides to cover this embarrassment.)
July 13, 2005 update: Noting the contrasting U.S. media treatment of the suicide terrorism in Netanya, Israel, that followed soon after the London atrocities, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) does its usual job of meticulously and factually exposing media bias and errors. But one sentence is too extraordinary to let pass without quoting:
the New York Times omitted a key sentence from Palestinian President Abbas's response [to the Netanya bombing]: "We condemn this terrorist attack." Perhaps it made the Times uncomfortable that even the Palestinian leader was willing to call the bombing a "terrorist attack," while the Times was not.
July 14, 2005 update: One observer of MSM use of the term terrorism has sketched these tentative rules of the game:
- Islamist terrorism exists in Western countries.
- It does not exist outside the West (e.g., not in Beslan, Israel, India, Saudi Arabia, Thailand).
- Jews cannot be the victims of terrorism, unless it is not in Israel and the majority of victims are non-Jews.
July 15, 2005 update (1): It gets worse. Zakaria Zubeidi, who heads al-Fatah's Jenin branch of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, made a "guest appearance" in a video prepared by Reuters staff as "going away" gift for colleague in March 2005, reports Yaakov Lappin in Yedi'ot Aharonot. Israeli security calls Zubeidi a key figure in organizing some of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades' over 300 terrorist operations Israelis during the last five years.
Reuters spokeswoman Susan Allsopp confirmed the video's existence and called it a "spoof … shown at a private farewell party and was meant to be humorous. As soon as editorial management in Jerusalem became aware of the video they told the staff involved that Reuters found it to be inappropriate and in poor taste." That's a fine recovery, but the fact that Reuters staff would invite a notorious killer to participate in its spoof speaks volumes about the journalists' mentality – and their unwillingness to call a terrorist by that name.
July 15, 2005 update (2): The Dallas Morning News editors proclaimed today:
No longer will we refer to suicide bombers or anyone else in Iraq who targets and kills children and other innocent civilians as "insurgents." …
People who set off bombs on London trains are not insurgents. We would never think of calling them anything other than what they are – terrorists. Train bombers in Madrid? Terrorists. Chechen rebels who take over a Russian school and execute children? Terrorists. Teenagers who strap bombs to their chests and detonate them in an Israeli cafe? Terrorists. IRA killers? Basque separatist killers? Hotel bombers in Bali? Terrorists all.
Words have meanings. Whether too timid, sensitive or "open-minded," we've resisted drawing a direct line between homicidal bombers everywhere else in the world and the ones who blow up Iraqi civilians or behead aid workers. No more. To call them "insurgents" insults every legitimate insurgency in modern history. They are terrorists.
Comment: Bravo for the Dallas Morning News – and may its example be much followed.
July 19, 2005 update: The National Post today leaked a memo distributed to Canadian Broadcast Corporation staff on the topic of CBC policy toward using the words "terrorist" and "terrorism." It calls for "extreme caution" before using either word because they are "highly controversial" and "can leave journalists taking sides in a conflict." (Horrors.) The policy boils down to this: "Avoid labelling any specific bombing or other assault as a "terrorist act" unless it's attributed (in a TV or Radio clip, or in a direct quote on the Web)." The memo helpfully offers a variety of synonyms for terrorists, such as "bombers, hijackers, gunmen (if we're sure no women were in the group), militants, extremists, attackers or some other appropriate noun."
Oct. 16, 2005 update: A year later, more terrorism in Russia, this time in Nalchik, and more media obfuscation. Mark Steyn reprises these same linguistic points, in his humorous way, in his Chicago Sun-Times column, "Media utters nonsense, won't call enemy out."
Dec. 8, 2005 update: If the Israel Defense Forces does not call Hizbullah a terrorist group, then there is no refuge from euphemism. Yedi'ot Aharonot reports today that an IDF computer presentation sent to all Israeli military attaches abroad, as well as to foreign military attaches in Israel and other foreigners, refers to the members of the Lebanese organization as "guerilla fighters." Thus, a recent Hizbullah attack on Israel's northern border led to the IDF killing four "Hizbullah guerilla fighters."
May 3, 2006 update: Is there movement in the other direction, impatience with the namby-pamby words? Tom Leonard reports some good news in the Daily Telegraph (London). The BBC's Impartiality Review panel, chaired by Sir Quentin Thomas, president of the British Board of Film Classification, and including senior academics and journalists, issued a 38-page study commissioned by the BBC governors to investigate allegations of bias in the corporation's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The review panel found there was little evidence of "systematic or deliberate bias" but criticized "the elusiveness of editorial planning, grip and oversight." It stated that there is "significant scope for improvement, particularly in reporting terrorism." It called the word terrorism the "most accurate expression" for indiscriminate attacks on civilians aimed at causing terror for ideological objectives. It did agree with the BBC practice of not labeling organizations as "terrorist." Sir Quentin called on the BBC to "get the language right. We think it should call terrorist acts terrorism because that term is clear and well understood. Equally, on this and other sensitive points of language, once it has decided the best answer, it should ensure that it is adopted consistently."
Leonard adds that the "BBC News management, which is understood to have been annoyed by the review's findings, said it would draw up plans for implementing "appropriate recommendations."
June 14, 2006 update: Octavia Nasr, CNN senior editor for Arab Affairs, revealed in an interview that she does not know the difference between terrorism and counterterrorism, and sees the term terrorism, in good post-modern style as completely subjective:
terrorism for one person is a freedom fight for another. And you know, the Arab world always talks about this, as they say the so-called terrorism, because they believe that - in Iraq, for example, many people are struggling against occupation, so in many ways they support that struggle against occupation but then they draw a line between those who are struggling. They want a free Iraq, they want the occupiers out and those who are pushing the envelope and crossing the line by terrorizing people. And when we say terrorizing people, in a sense, it's going after the innocent civilians, the unsuspecting civilians, taking hostages, beheading them. Committing acts that are totally unacceptable, even by the standards of a freedom fight. So, you know, if you think about it, "terrorism" is a subjective term depending on which side you are on.
June 29, 2006 update: Well, those plans amount to shelving the report. "BBC rejects call to change terminology," reports George Conger of the Jerusalem Post. Using the word "terrorist" to describe attacks on civilians, the BBC's management responded in a paper released June 19, "would exclude attacks on soldiers" and would make "the very value judgments" the organization's editorial guidelines "ask us to avoid." Management said that the word terrorist is permitted but cautioned reporters "against its use without attribution." Translation: only use the word if it's in a quote.
July 20, 2012 update: Erin Dwyer and Eric Rozenman elegantly update this point for CAMERA in "From Yemen to Bulgaria, Who Made Terrorist and Militant Synonymous?"