Paris Massacres: Case Study in Washington Post Use of Terrorist or Militant

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:

*“European leaders press for crackdown on terror suspects; Officials in Italy say FBI warned them about threat to landmarks,” by William Booth (Post Jerusalem bureau chief) and correspondent Souad Mekhennet. The article appeared under the banner “Terror In Paris.” “Terrorist attacks,” “terrorist cells,” “terrorist watch lists” and “terrorist targets” appeared six times in The Post’s own words, twice more in direct quotes. Extremists, jihadist, and “jihad, or Islamic holy war” in The Post’s own words, once each. Militant turned up three times;
Accurate closer to home
*“As security tightens, suspicions multiply; Treatment of Muslims stirs fears of profiling,” November 20, by Post reporters Fredrick Kunkle, Lori Aratani, and Luz Lazo. Terrorist or terrorism in the newspaper’s own words, four times. Islamist extremists once. Terror, in a direct quote, once. Militant, not at all;
*“Intelligence Debrief: Did Snowden’s disclosures make it easier for terrorists to elude detection?” by reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller. This page one feature uses terrorists in the headline and terrorist or terrorism 10 times in the body of the article in The Post’s own words, three more times in direct quotes, and jihadist twice. Militant appeared four times, including once in a cutline accompanying a photograph, and dissidents once, though not as a synonym for militant or terrorist;
*“Alleged ringleader of attacks confirmed dead,” a front-page article by correspondents Anthony Faiola, Souad Mekhennet and Missy Ryan used terrorist four times in The Post’s own words in the text and a cutline, counterterrorism once, and militants twice. The dispatch’s continuation on page A-10 ran under the banner “Terror In Paris” and jump headline “Terror cell said to have also planned a Montmartre attack”; and
*“Staggering at home, striking abroad; Islamic State’s defeats may spur attacks in the West, analysts say,” by correspondent Loveday Morris, used terrorist in its own words twice, twice in direct quotes and militant twice.
By contrast, The Post’s November 20 print edition also carried a shorter, 10-paragraph article headlined “American among 5 dead in attacks by Palestinians”. By Ruth Eglash of the paper’s Jerusalem bureau, it used the word terrorist once in a direct quote but not in the newspaper’s own words. Palestinian attacker, Palestinian assailant and assailant appeared, but not “militant.” It said “the killings marked a surge in violence after several days of relative quiet following weeks of near-daily stabbings, shootings and vehicular attacks in Israeli towns and cities and violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the West Bank.”
According to The Post, “this latest round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians ignited last month after clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at a holy site in Jerusalem revered by both Jews and Muslims. The site … has been a constant flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

False equivalence

“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.

In contrast, the following day, November 21, the paper ran a 12-paragraph dispatch headlined “Growing fear over killings in Bangladesh; Islamic States has claimed 3 attacks on foreigners since Sept.,” by Post correspondent Annie Gowen. It used the word “terrorist” twice in its own voice, once in a direct quote. It mentioned the “peril” of “Islamist extremism” and referred to “a series of brutal stabbings of secular bloggers by religious fundamentalists allegedly inspired by the writings of al-Qaeda.”
The articles noted above highlight consistent terrorist/militant usage by The Post and many other news outlets. But if one person’s terrorist isn’t really another person’s freedom fighter, as moral relativists insist, any more than one surgeon’s malignant tumor is another’s beauty mark, what—journalistically—underlies the “terrorist-militant” equivalence? What stimulates reporters and editors to whitewash either or both as guerrilla, insurgent or fighter?

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.



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