SPINMEISTERS AT WORK ON 'TERRORIST'
by Norman Solomon
American Repporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- During the first two days of this month, CNN's Website dis= played an odd little announcement. "There have been false reports that CNN = has not used the word 'terrorist' to refer to those who attacked the World = Trade Center and Pentagon," the notice said. "In fact, CNN has consistently=
and repeatedly referred to the attackers and hijackers as terrorists, and = it will continue to do so."
The CNN disclaimer was accurate -- and, by conventional media standards,= reassuring. But it bypassed a basic question that festers beneath America'= s overwhelming media coverage of recent weeks: Exactly what qualifies as "t= errorism"?
For this country's mainstream journalists, that's a non-question about a= no-brainer. More than ever, the proper function of the "terrorist" label s= eems obvious. "A group of people commandeered airliners and used them as gu= ided missiles against thousands of people," says NBC News executive Bill Wh= eatley. "If that doesn't fit the definition of terrorism, what does?"
Tru= e enough. At the same time, it's notable that American news outlets routine= ly define terrorism the same way that U.S. government officials do. Usually= , editors assume that reporters don't need any formal directive because the= appropriate usage is simply understood.
The Wall Street Journal does provide some guidelines, telling its= staff that the word terrorist "should be used carefully, and specifically,= to describe those people and nongovernmental organizations that plan and e= xecute acts of violence against civilian or noncombatant targets." In newsr= ooms across the United States, media professionals would agree.
But -- in= sharp contrast -- Reuters has stuck to a distinctive approach for decades.
"As part of a policy to avoid the use of emotive words," the global new= s service says, "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 rep= ort their actions, identity and background so that readers can make their o= wn decisions based on the facts."
Since mid-September, the Reuters management has taken a lot of heat for = maintaining this policy -- and for reiterating it in an internal memo, whic= h included the observation that "one man's terrorist is another man's freed= om fighter." In a clarifying statement, released on Oct. 2, the top execs a= t Reuters explained: "Our policy is to avoid the use of emotional terms and= not make value judgments concerning the facts we attempt to report accurat= ely and fairly."
Reuters reports from 160 countries, and the "terrorist" label is highly = contentious in quite a few of them. Behind the scenes, many governments hav= e pressured Reuters to flatly describe their enemies as terrorists in news = dispatches.
From the vantage point of government leaders in Ankara or Jerusalem or M= oscow, for example, journalists shouldn't hesitate to describe their violen= t foes as terrorists. But why should reporters oblige by pinning that tag o= n Kurdish combatants in Turkey, or Palestinian militants in occupied territ= ories, or rebels in Chechnya?
Unless we buy into the absurd pretense that= governments don't engage in "terrorism," the circumscribed use of the term= by U.S. media makes no sense. Turkish military forces have certainly terro= rized and killed many civilians; the same is true of Israeli forces and Rus= sian troops. As a result, plenty of Kurds, Palestinians and Chechens are gr= ieving.
American reporters could plausibly expand their working definition of te= rrorism to include all organized acts of terror and murder committed agains= t civilians. But such consistency would meet with fierce opposition in high= Washington places.
During the 1980s, with a non-evasive standard for ter= rorism, news accounts would have routinely referred to the Nicaraguan contr= a guerrillas -- in addition to the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments --= as U.S.-backed "terrorists." Today, for instance, such a standard would re= quire news coverage of terrorism in the Middle East to include the Israeli = assaults with bullets and missiles that take the lives of Palestinian child= ren and other civilians.
Sadly, the evenhanded use of the "terrorist" label would mean sometimes = affixing it directly on the U.S. government. During the past decade, from I= raq to Sudan to Yugoslavia, the Pentagon's missiles have destroyed the live= s of civilians just as innocent as those who perished on Sept. 11. If journ= alists dare not call that "terrorism," then perhaps the word should be reti= red from the media lexicon.
It's entirely appropriate for news outlets to describe the Sept. 11 hija= ckers as "terrorists" -- if those outlets are willing to use the "terrorist= " label with integrity across the board. But as long as news organizations = are not willing to do so, the Reuters policy is the only principled journal= istic alternative.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." = His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.