Anton Harber

Defying the frame

2006-12-01 10:04

Anton Harber

Some American media have started calling the Iraq conflict a 'civil war', in defiance of the White House. This signals a critical moment as the media, emboldened by President George Bush's poor showing in recent mid-term elections, is using language that is likely to feed domestic doubts about the wisdom of the US presence in Iraq.

"After careful consideration, NBC News has decided that a change in terminology is warranted, that the situation in Iraq with armed militarised factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterised as civil war," presenter Matt Lauer said live on the air on Monday.

Leading newspaper the Los Angeles Times claimed to be first, saying that since October it had started to use the phrase, "without public fanfare". The New York Times said it was using the phrase 'civil war' sparingly and carefully, "not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect."

Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote: "The main shortcoming of 'civil war' is that, like other labels, it fails to capture the complexity of what is happening on the ground. The war in Iraq is, in addition to being a civil war, an occupation, a Baathist insurgency, a sectarian conflict, a front in a war against terrorists, a scene of criminal gangsterism and a cycle of vengeance. We believe 'civil war' should not become reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated."

Washington Post is staying neutral: "We just describe what goes on everyday. We don't have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another," executive editor Leonard Downie was quoted saying.

Editors at the Miami Herald are still debating the issue, as is the Boston Globe.

Christian Science Monitor Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson said his paper's language "has shifted as gradually as the situation in Iraq has evolved."

The White House - which has been quick to suggest that journalists criticising the war are lazy, getting it wrong and even lacking in patriotism - rejected the 'civil war' label and said the conflict was "sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences".

Their concern is that once it is called a civil war, Americans - with a majority already questioning the war - would be asking why they are sacrificing lives for an internal Iraq battle. They fear a 'Walter Cronkite moment', referring to the critical turning point in the Vietnam War when America's most respected and authoritative TV journalist said he did not believe it was a war American could win and questioned his country's continued involvement.

Not just semantic

It seems inevitable now that the tide is changing and most of the media are going to go against the White House on this. It is unlikely to be as dramatic as a Cronkite moment, but it certainly signals the growing anti-war tide in US politics.

The issue is not just semantic. It signals that the US media is increasingly willing to defy the official White House framing of the story in a way it has found difficult to do since 9/11. Emboldened by the fact that the White House is weakened, the media is gaining the guts is has lacked for some time.

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter asked why it had taken so long for the media to recognise the obvious. And he is right. Much of the media has allowed an aggressive White House to assert a dubious claim to patriotism and use it to discourage discordant ideas.

What does this mean for us in South Africa? I think it highlights the need to resist any notion that critical journalism is unpatriotic. It drives home the need not to let government always frame the story and set the terms for coverage, as they often do.

And it should make us think about the labels we use and the impact they have. We overuse, and have discredited, the word 'crisis', but what is it that we have on the crime front? Is it a wave, a storm, a war? Is corruption rife, endemic, a problem or just an issue?

We use these descriptions interchangeably, but they can't all be factually true, can they?

  • Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Wits University. His blog is at www.theharbinger.co.za.

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