More on "They're Terrorists – Not Activists"
by Daniel Pipes
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.
Sep. 9, 2004 update: Don Wycliff, the Chicago Tribune's "public editor," justifies his paper's policy of avoiding the word terrorist:
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:
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:
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 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:
Sep. 20, 2004 update: In an interview with the New York Times, Schlesinger revealed the real reasons for Reuters' prohibition on the word terrorist:
Sep. 21, 2004 update: HonestReporting.com comments on the above statement by Schlesinger in the Times:
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
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:
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:
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:
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."
Oct. 14, 2004 update: After noting the twenty euphemisms I found, Grant Jones points out another term in FrontPageMag.com:
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:
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":
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:
July 14, 2005 update: One observer of MSM use of the term terrorism has sketched these tentative rules of the game:
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:
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:
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?"
Reader comments (1) on this item
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes