Washington Post reporting on the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed at least 130 people and wounded 350 was extensive. It came soon after the newspaper’s coverage of the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and would be succeeded by reporting of the November 20 killing of 20 people in a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali. All three attacks were claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or affiliates.
In the midst of The Post’s Paris reporting a letter to the editor appeared from Matthew Memberg of Arlington, Va. Memberg criticized the newspaper for an item (“10 times that bombs brought down passenger planes,” Nov. 8, 2015) using “the word ‘militant’ to describe some of those responsible for bombings. Calling such people militants tacitly legitimizes them and the groups they work for and grants them status and legality they don’t have. Calling such people terrorists is factual” (“Terrorists vs. militants,” November 21 print edition).
Memberg did not specify it, but his letter reflects that when writing about the United States, historians often reserve “militant” as an adjective to describe the more aggressive elements of movements including trade unionist, feminist, or environmentalist. Rarely have they used it as equivalent to terrorist.
CAMERA has been making this point for years. It’s not “just semantics.” As we emphasized in contrasting Post reporting of a school massacre in Russia’s North Ossetia with that of murders on a bus in Beersheva, Israel (“The Washington Post Versus Itself on Terrorism,” Sept. 8, 2004), militant amounted to “a weasel word.” It was (and is) used by news media, including The Post, to avoid the criminal connotations and moral obloquy associated with terrorism.
Eleven years ago, The Post in its own words described the Islamic gunmen who murdered more than 300 children and adults in Beslan, Russia accurately. That is, as terrorists.
But only occasionally. It favored the word guerrilla. That was inaccurate since guerrillas are irregular troops fighting an organized military.
No justification for terrorism
Terrorists, as U.S. law defines, threaten or use force against non-combatants to influence larger audiences and attempt to compel governments to change policies for ideological, religious, economic or other reasons. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the late Pope John Paul II, among others, have insisted that no cause—no matter how justified in the minds of adherents—justifies terrorism.
About the time of the Beslan atrocity in Russia, The Post also reported an attack by Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that killed 16 Israeli non-combatants. Here the newspaper defaulted not to guerrilla but rather “militant.” Though it quoted Israeli sources twice as referring to terrorism, it paraphrased them several times, inserting the word militant where terrorist was called for.
This month, in Post reporting from and about the Paris assaults claimed by the Islamic State, accuracy—dependent on precise language—appeared frequently, even overwhelmingly. So, however, did vagueness and inaccuracy, in the form of the word militant.
This suggests, as CAMERA also has noted previously, that the newspaper a) believes terrorist and militant to be synonymous, b) the more it hesitates in describing a terrorist as such, the more likely The Post is to believe that the militant, guerrilla, gunman, fighter, insurgent or whatever acts, however lamentably, on behalf of a legitimate cause, and/or c) militants, as a rule, threaten people far away while terrorists endanger those much closer to Washington, D.C. Hence The Post’s chronic paucity of references to Palestinian terrorists. (See, for example, “CAMERA Alert: Washington Post Knotted Up Over Terrorism,” March 22, 2004.)
Consider these five news or feature articles related to the Paris massacres in the newspaper’s November 20 print edition:
“In recent weeks, the violence had swung away from Jerusalem and other Israeli centers to Palestinian areas in the West Bank, such as Hebron, where protesters clash with Israeli soldiers almost daily. The Israeli army has responded with increasingly harsh measures.”
What these “increasingly harsh measures” were, the newspaper didn’t specify.
CAMERA more than once has cited the closing lines of George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language in this regard:
“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 [emphasis added], and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.”
Journalists striving for accuracy are not to behave—to speak or write—as political partisans. Those who do are not longer journalists but propagandists. Reporters and editors should consign to Orwell’s dustbin the verbal refuse of “militant” (and when used to disguise terrorists’ motivation, “militancy”). Failure to do so continues to make a lie of great consequence sound truthful.