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Media Analyses





CAMERA ALERT: Washington Post Knotted Up Over Terrorism


All Tied Up

In three paragraphs in his weekly column (“Was This News for Kids?” March 21) Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler again attempts to defend the paper’s general refusal to use the term terrorism to describe Palestinian attacks against Israelis. Getler ties himself in knots defending the Post for describing as terrorism the alleged Al Qaeda train bombings in Madrid on March 11, while refusing to identify similarly the Ashdod suicide bombings on March 14. The former murdered more than 200 people in Spain, the latter 11 people in Israel.

Illogical

“Post editors, and I, agree that the devastating attacks in Spain or a bus bombing in Israel are terrorists acts,” Getler begins.

But as a rule, they say, these labels are not helpful compared with factual reporting about what happened. Furthermore, the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is different, as is the conflict in Iraq, in which suicide bombings and other attacks are described rather than labeled .... Terrorism is like other things that you know when you see, and The Post should not shy away from that word when it is useful for the general reader. The use of that term in early reports from Madrid does not, in my view, make The Post guilty of 'hypocrisy,' as some readers claim, with respect to its terminology for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Getler’s allusion to a U.S. Supreme Court justice’s remark about pornography, “I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it,” avoids the issue. Unlike pornography, terrorism can be precisely defined. According to the U.S. government, it is the threat or use of force against civilians, often to influence a larger audience for political ends. Blowing up a Spanish train, an American airliner, a Shi’ite mosque, an Indonesian nightclub or, yes, an Israeli bus, are all examples of terrorism. To see, and say this, is not hard; journalistic accuracy, not to mention intellectual and moral honesty, requires it.

Motivations or propagandistic justifications don’t count.  Presumed differences between the Arab conflict with Israel and Muslim fundamentalists’ self-declared war on “Jews and Crusaders”–that is, on Judaism, Christianity and the countries in which they thrive–do not stand. Terrorism is a crime under international law, including the Geneva conventions. As Getler himself acknowledges, we recognize terrorism when we see it–there’s no need to consult a psychological diagnostic manual or the Post’s stylebook.

Contorted

The ombudsman implies that Israeli references to Palestinian violence as terrorism are no more credible than Arab descriptions of “many Israeli actions–collective punishment, targeted killings, civilian casualties, house demolitions–as terrorism.” Getler insinuates that Post refusal to adopt either side’s language confirms its professionalism. Hardly.

Refusing to employ direct, accurate language forces default choices among other less accurate, even misleading vocabularies. Hence the Post’s standing preference for “militants” or “activists” over terrorists when it comes to adjectives identifying members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) or the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade of Fatah and its reluctance to report that the U.S. government lists all three as terrorist groups. The paper can do better than throw up its hands in the face of competing claims. It has done so on the Madrid bombings, the World Trade Center attacks, and in many other reports about terrorism against non-Israeli targets. But so long as the Post does not distinguish in Arab-Israeli coverage between cause and effect, offensive and defensive actions, intended targets from accidental victims, temporary and conditional responses from strategic aggression, its dispatches will hold little news value.

Mulish

In its stubborn self-contradictions, Getler’s March 21 comments recall his Sept. 21, 2003 column “The Language of Terrorism.” Then he conceded that readers who complain regularly that Post coverage “is biased against Israel” frequently cite the paper’s “description of people or organizations that carry out or sponsor suicide bombings as ‘militants’ rather than 'terrorists' ....”

Post guidance, said Getler, acknowledges that “terrorism is real and identifiable, and we can identify it when that is appropriate.” But “when it comes to the Middle East news report, however .... Adopting particular language can suggest taking sides.”  As if writing militant or activist when terrorist is called for is not taking sides.

Getler then and now reflects a common news media confusion, equating objective with neutral. Calling a terrorist a militant might sound neutral, but it certainly is not objective. Instead of terrorist and victim, we get militant and casualties.

The ombudsman tried to rebut readers who “attempt to equate the U.S. battle against al Qaeda with the Israeli battle against Hamas.” He erroneously labeled Hamas “a nationalist movement,” implied its “territorial ambitions” were limited to the Gaza Strip and West Bank and that its “social work” offset its terrorism. Getler insinuated that Palestinian terrorism, stemming from “humiliating Israeli occupation,” could be equated with “resisting.”

Here is the source of the Washington Post’s stubborn refusal to regularly identify Palestinian Arab terrorism against Israelis as such–the rigid insistence that “the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is different.” In its dismissal of facts, its rejection of accurate language, it recalls, as CAMERA has pointed out to the Post previously, George Orwell's observation from his well-known essay “Politics and the English Language”: “Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

***

Washington Post, March 21, 2004

Excerpt from Michael Getler’s column “Was this news for kids?”

...A couple of readers last week, noting Post news reporting from Madrid about “the worst terrorist attack in modern Spanish history," once again challenged The Post's use of language when reporting Palestinian suicide bomber attacks against, for example, an Israeli bus or cafe. These are usually not described as terrorist attacks in The Post, except in the words of Israeli or other officials. This issue has come up before and has been discussed in this column before. But the initial stories from Madrid provide a new challenge.

Post editors, and I, agree that the devastating attacks in Spain or a bus bombing in Israel are terrorist acts. But as a rule, they say, these labels are not helpful compared  with factual reporting about what happened. Furthermore, the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is different, as is the conflict in Iraq, in which suicide bombings and other attacks are described rather than labeled. Readers know very well what is happening.

The Israelis, of course, describe such acts as terrorism. But to adopt the language of one side in what is essentially a bitter war carried out daily over many years by gunmen and suicide bombers on one side and an army on the other is not something that The Post, or most other news organizations, is going to do. Palestinians view many Israeli actions -- collective punishment, targeted killings, civilian casualties, house demolitions -- as terrorism, as do some human rights groups. But  The Post does not adopt their language either.

Terrorism is like other things that you know when you see, and  The Post should not shy away from that word when it is useful for the general reader. The use of that term in early reports from Madrid does not, in my view, make  The Post guilty of “hypocrisy," as some readers claim, with respect to its terminology for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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