Monday, November 27, 2006

A War By Any Other Name?


They say you are always wise to pick your fights, but did NBC expect a fight by deciding that the Iraq fighting had become a civil war?

The decision not to stay the course was revealed, of all places, on the "Today" Show, and no discussion of what would seem a fairly momentus change was yet on The Daily Nightly, the mostly Brian Williams blog, by the time of the evening network newscast.

This is not the posture of a newsroom that was braced for criticism of a delicate semantic choice.

Donald Rumsfeld is in no position to complain but the White House is, and is. "While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither (Iraqi) Prime Minister Maliki nor we believe that Iraq is in a civil war," the administration said in a statement.

There are no rules on who gets to decide these things, but newsrooms always -- always -- need to describe things accurately. Sometimes the same thing can be called two things by two different sides -- quick: is it Myanmar, or Burma? -- so any decision, and no decision, is seen either wrong.

Sometimes reporters avoid words and phrases that they believe carry inherent perjorative meaning, as my old haunt, Reuters, did by eschewing the use of the word "terrorist" and its various forms for quite some time after the 9/11 attacks. Can anyone forget that catchy phrase, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter?"

The NBC Nightly News began with this intro: "A critical week for the president and the civil war in Iraq," stating as fact what yesterday was not considered a fact. Reuters, and other major MSM, is still, as of today, using some formulation of "sectarian" strife/conflict/violence to describe the increasingly violent Iraqi-on-Iraqi attacks. But that's today.

There are plenty who say that asserting Iraq is in the midst of a civil war merely states the obvious, and others who argue that NBC doesn't get to decide these things, and thus is advancing an agenda by trying to influence events rather than report on them. MSNBC, to its credit, had at least one critic on the the air today who was unbridled in her contempt for the decision.

For whatever it is worth, after the architect of this war is forced to resign; Kissinger says the war can't be won; the Democrats are elected to control both houses of Congress; and everyone is waiting for James Baker to provide political cover for some kind of exit strategy, NBC's decision can't seriously be seen as going out on a very long limb.

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