The Washington Post Versus Itself on Terrorism

In numerous articles about the seizure of more than 1,000 children and adults – of whom more than 300 died in Beslan, Russia last week – the Washington Post repeatedly used the words terror and terrorist. This contrasted with its front-page news story September 1 on the bus bombings in Be’ersheva, Israel.

In reporting the Beslan horror, the Post erroneously favored the term guerrillas (irregular troops battling an opposition military, not murderers of civilians) to describe the perpetrators. But terror and terrorist did appear, and not only in direct quotes from officials describing the Muslim gunmen. The terms were also used in paraphrases by Post reporters and in unattributed narrative passages.

However, writing about the Beersheva attacks that killed 16 Israelis and wounded more than 100, Post coverage – detailed and graphic as it was – did not directly identify Hamas, the group responsible, as a terrorist organization. This is so even though Hamas is listed as such by the U.S. government and Post reporters often note the fact in coverage of terrorism-related American court cases. But reporting from Be’ersheva, the newspaper repeatedly termed Hamas a “militant group” and paraphrased Israeli officials to use militant in place of terrorist as well. “Terror” appeared only twice, in direct quotes from Israeli officials.

Why the Difference?

Challenged by readers about a similar discrepancy last spring – reporters terming the Madrid train bombings “the worst terrorist attack in modern Spanish history” when The Post evades direct use of terrorist and terrorism in Arab-Israeli coverage – ombudsman Michael Getler attempted a defense. In a March 21 column, he claimed:

Post editors, and I, agree that the devastating [train] 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…

The Israelis, of course, describe such acts as terrorism. But to adopt the language of one side in what is essentially a bitter war … 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.

Getler was wrong then, and the Post is wrong now. Other major news organization do call terrorism – the threat or use of violence against noncombatants to influence a larger audience to win political or other goals – what it is. They do so even when the terrorists are Palestinian Arabs. For example, both the New York Times and USA Today said exactly the same thing in their September 1 reports from Beersheva:

The terrorist group Hamas claimed responsibility.

Calling terrorism what it is, is not adopting the language of one side. It’s being accurate. the Post’s common practice, referring to Hamas as a “militant group” or fighters or “the resistance” is not factual reporting. By obscuring the reality of what Hamas does the paper echoes the propagandistic nature of the organization’s own words. The Post is adopting the language of one side — the terrorists’.

As for Getler’s context, he fails to make essential distinctions. Palestinian complaints, for example, about civilian casualties do not equate with Israeli charges of Arab terrorism. That’s because groups like Hamas intentionally target Israeli non-combatants. The Israeli military, in lawfully defending itself and the country’s civilian population, attempts – often at increased risk to itself – to avoid civilian Arab casualties.

Then is Now

One article in particular from Beslan made clear the Post’s double standard. Foreign Editor David E. Hoffman, whom Getler cited in a September 21, 2003 column defending the paper’s use of terrorist and militant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, covered the Russian crisis from Moscow. Hoffman – a former Moscow correspondent for the Post – used the “t” word in a September 5 article headlined “Putin Alleges ‘Weakness,’ Security Gap; In Speech, Russian Leader Vows to Resist Separatists.” He noted that Russian leader Vladimir Putin referred to “international terrorists waging a ‘total, cruel and full-scale war’ against the country.” The foreign editor used “terrorist” both in indirect quotes – as in this case – and in direct quotes as well. That is, in contradiction to avoidance of such usage in Post Arab-Israeli coverage, including that of the Beersheva bombings.

Odd. Last September, Getler – relying in part on Hoffman, in part on The Post’s style book – asserted that “labels” like terrorist and terrorism ought to be avoided in favor of “more informative and precise language.” What can be more precise than calling a terrorist a terrorist?

Getler also attempted to separate the U.S. war against al-Qaeda from Israel’s struggle against Islamic extremists like Hamas. But Ze’ev Schiff, military analyst for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz – a paper not infrequently quoted by The Post in criticism of Israeli policy – wrote in the September 5 edition:

There is a line connecting this weekend’s mass murder in a school in North Ossetia, the ongoing genocide in Sudan, the bomb blasts on Madrid trains, the bombing of Istanbul synagogues and the suicide bombings in Beersheva. That line is Islamic — for the most part Arab — terrorism, and it endangers world peace…

The line also reaches back from Beslan to Ma’alot, Israel, where the Palestine Liberation Organization seized a school in 1974; 25 people died, 21 of them students. “In both cases,” Schiff adds, “the murderers presented themselves and were recognized as freedom fighters.” Somewhere between terrorist and freedom fighters, and tilting toward the latter, lie weasel words like militant, fighter, and resistance. That’s where, when it comes to the Arab conflict against Israel, lead by Palestinian terrorist groups, we find the Washington Post.

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