Editors Consider the "T-Word"September 2, 2003 12:00 by ManagingTeam
For the past three years, HonestReporting has led the campaign to demand that news agencies refer to Palestinian terrorists as “terrorists,” and cease using euphemisms like “militants” and “activists.”
Amidst growing pressure from media monitors, newspaper editors are finally addressing this matter head-on.
Last week, editors at two of Florida’s largest newspapers ? Manning Pynn of the Orlando Sentinel and Philip Gailey of the St. Petersburg Times ? each boldly tackled the question: Why does my own news department refer to al Qaeda as “terrorists,” and Hamas or Islamic Jihad as “militants,” if all three of these organizations use mass murder of civilians to further their ideological goals (a paraphrase of the US State Department definition of terrorism; all three organizations appear on the State Department’s official list of terrorist groups)?
The two editors asked the same question, but reached startlingly different conclusions:
1) St. Petersburg Times’ Philip Gailey:
? Defining terrorism: “For me, it’s not a hard call. Acts of terror are committed by terrorists, and the horrific bus attack on Israeli civilians, like the dozens of suicide bombings that preceded it, was an act of cold, indiscriminate terror… I don’t think militants set out to deliberately kill children.”
? Remaining balanced: “I’m all for fair and balanced reporting…but I also believe that words do matter. And if the word ‘terrorism’ is to have any real meaning, then blowing up a bus crowded with women and children must be condemned for what it is ? an act of terrorism.”
? Effect on coverage: As noted on the website of Florida media monitors PRIMER, The St. Petersburg Times has not only followed Gailey’s lead and begun using the term “terrorists” to describe Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but is even changing the language of incoming Associated Press and New York Times wire reports to meet their new editorial commitment to call terror by its name.
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2) Orlando Sentinel’s Manning Pynn:
? Defining terrorism: The term “terrorist,” claims Pynn, only applies to al Qaeda, since the term “imputes to the person or organization being described the motive of trying to instill fear.” Moreover, Americans were “so shocked” by 9/11 that they “almost universally applied the term ‘terrorism’ to what had happened.”
Pynn suggests, absurdly, that Hamas and Co. aren’t trying to “instill fear” when they blow up civilian buses and restaurants. And the general degree of human shock, Pynn submits, is much lower when the innocent civilian victims happen to be Israeli ? or Americans in Israel, for that matter.
Pynn then makes the basic error of equating the Palestinians’ intentional targeting of civilians with the collateral damage of Israeli strikes against terrorists. Says Pynn, sarcastically: “By that standard, of course, any nation at war could be labeled ‘terrorist’ when attacks take civilian lives.”
? Remaining balanced: Pynn recalls that “the United States was not at war when it was attacked on 9/11; Israel and the Palestinians have been engaged in armed conflict for decades,” and moreover, Palestinians are “resisting occupation.” The use of the word “terror” in the context of Israel would therefore be “judgmental” and jeopardize “impartial news reporting” of an ongoing conflict.
The logical counter-argument is articulated by Dr. Bruce Epstein of Florida: By substituting the word “militant” for “terrorist,” a newspaper is no less “judgmental” ? painting suicide bombers of packed restaurants and buses as legal, legitimate and even moral.
Pynn also fails to recognize that even in the context of war, deliberate violence against unarmed and non-threatening civilians is illegal under international law, which treats terrorism as a separate, wholly immoral use of force. The Sentinel itself recognizes this when covering the ongoing Iraq war and the U.S. occupation of Iraq ? on August 30, the Sentinel referred to the car bombing of an Iraqi mosque as the probable work of the al Qaeda “terrorist network.” Why, according to Pynn’s logic, did al Qaeda not suddenly become a “militant organization” when the US declared war on Bin Laden and occupied Iraq?
? Effect on Coverage: The double standard at the Sentinel persists ? but it now bears the stamp of approval of the paper’s Public Editor.
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— ON A LIGHTER NOTE —
Meanwhile, in correspondence with HonestReporting, Joanna Mills, editor of BBC World Update, wrote: “It is the style of the BBC World Service to call no one a terrorist, aware as we are that one man’s terrorist is another one’s freedom fighter.”
Yet BBC has finally found an act in the Mideast so heinous that it deserves being termed “terrorism.” After a massive lizard roamed Beirut suburbs for weeks, eluding efforts to capture it, BBC ran the headline:
“Giant Lizard Terrorizes Beirut”