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Media Analyses





News Media Makeovers — Terrorists Are Militants Are Fighters


The closer terrorists get to Israel, the more likely they are to be transformed linguistically. In Western news media the sanitization process begins with terrorist, proceeds to the word choice militant, then continues through activist to gunman and onward to insurgent and fighter before arriving at the usages resistance and even the opposition. That is, from criminal — terrorism being a crime under international law — through ambiguous neutrality (activist and gunman) before arriving at admirable (resistance) or even legal and political (opposition).

In "A Strike at the 'Soul' of S. Asia; Gunmen Target Cricket Team in Pakistan Attack" (March 4), Washington Post correspondent Emily Wax wrote that "a squad of terrorists [this and subsequent emphases added] armed with grenades, rockets and rifles opened fire on a busload of visiting Sri Lankan cricketers players in Lahore, Pakistan ...." The Post's lead "The World" section article added that "Pakistani officials said the attack bore a resemblance to a terrorist siege in India in November ...." and said "the targeting of Lahore for a high-profile terrorist assault adds a twist to the tensions between India and Pakistan ...."

But near the end of the dispatch, The Post observed that "in India, news stations compared the Lahore attack to the 1972 Munich attack on Israeli Olympians by fighters linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization."

The article also refers to "a radical Islamist group, Lashkar-i-Taiba, which Indian officials assert had links to the (November 2008) Mumbai assault squad" as "an anti-India militant group" and to Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers as "ethnic separatist guerrillas," though both have specialized in terrorism and are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.

In "U.S. Sends Senior Officials to Syria To Revive Relations; Successful Talks Could Reshape Mideast," the adjacent, second lead world news article, Post diplomatic reporter Glenn Kessler wrote that Washington and Damascus would "explore how the two countries can move beyond years of bitterness over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Syria's links to terrorist groups."

Anti-Israel terrorist groups? No, and sort of. A U.S.-Syrian rapprochement might "reshape the Middle East if it results in Syria curtailing its ties to Iran and anti-Israeli militant groups."

Which "militant groups?" One might be "Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian movement that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization." Or not, because "Syria is seeking the return of the Golan Heights, while Israel wants Syria to end its support of militant groups." The Post extends its confusion to Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, who the newspaper paraphrases as saying "Syria's stance in the past year was similar to the stance of militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah."

Terrorist and militant are not synonyms as most militant (but generally non-violent) trade unionist or environmentalist would insist. Gunmen and fighters who target noncombatants are not simply or primarily gunmen and fighters but terrorists. The Post's editorial page is, compared to the foreign news pages, more likely to describe a terrorist accurately, though it sometimes uses "militant" as a synonym.

Where does that leave "news consumers" in general and Post readers in particular? In need, once again, of that timeless reminder with which George Orwell closed his 1946 essay " Politics and the English Language":

"Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

To avoid partisanship, newsrooms need to avoid political language.


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