This week, NBC started referring to the violence in Iraq as “civil war.” The New York Times cautiously edged closer to that terminology. NYT executive editor Bill Keller explains the editorial and political reasons for allowing reporters and editors to call it
as they see it.
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. For many months, the U.S. media have largely and delicately avoided using the term “civil war” to describe the violence in Iraq, relying instead on all manner of qualifiers, like “on the brink,” “on the edge” and “looming.” But pressure has mounted to reappraise the term, and on Monday morning NBC’s Matt Lauer announced a policy change.
MATT LAUER: After careful consideration, NBC News has decided that the situation in Iraq, with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, can now be characterized as civil war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here’s Fox’s Bill O’Reilly.
BILL O’REILLY: You have violent, out-of-control chaos, not civil war. Of course, the American media is not helping anyone by over-simplifying the situation and rooting for the USA to lose in Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And CNN Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware.
MICHAEL WARE: The debate about whether this is civil war is fueled either by the luxury of distance, those who aren’t here living on the ground, or those with a political agenda to deny its existence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Later on Monday in a letter to staff, New York Times’ editor Bill Keller took a slightly different route from NBC, and directed reporters and editors to use whatever term best suited their stories. He joins us now. Bill, welcome back to the show.
BILL KELLER: It’s a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a note to the staff, quoted in a New York Times blog, you wrote that: “We believe civil war should not become reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated.”
BILL KELLER: That’s right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And in the note, you directed staff to go ahead and use the term, but “sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect.”
BILL KELLER: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why not then stick to “sectarian violence”? What changed?
BILL KELLER: You know, it’s kind of emerged as an issue, and then last Sunday we ran a story about one of our reporters in Baghdad, Ed Wong, who surveyed a number of scholars and experts and said the consensus, and not unanimous but pretty broad, is that this clearly fits the definition that most political scientists use of a civil war. You know, I think Ed’s piece kind of raised it back to our attention and so we talked about it some more.
I mean, one of the reasons for not using it was, you know, honestly, a concern that because the White House has contended this is not a civil war, that using the phrase amounted to a kind of unnecessary political statement. So we used it in a qualified way, or we’d cite other people talking about it as a civil war.
But as we were discussing it over the past week, it also became clear that by that standard, it’s a political statement if you don’t call it a civil war. And having Ed write that piece kind of brought it to the surface.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Somebody must have asked him to write that story, and I just wonder, you know, were there some external factors like, say, the midterm elections, which carried the strong suggestion that the public saw a downward spiral in Iraq, or the imminent Iraq Study Group report?
BILL KELLER: Maybe the midterm elections kind of sort of shifted the whole zeitgeist a little bit on its axis. And I think that meant that the issue of whether or not the administration was right to insist that it’s not a civil war was getting more airing.
You know, Ed’s piece, as far as I know, was a response to the kind of back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, experts and Iraqis too. I mean, you know, the Maliki government does not want to call it a civil war, but a lot of Iraqis on the ground say it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, CNN has been visibly wrestling with this issue and its Baghdad reporter, Michael Ware, refers often live to the situation as a civil war, while the network anchors shun the phrase.
The Washington Post’s Dana Priest used the phrase on Hardball, despite the fact that the paper’s still officially not using the term. Your own Baghdad reporter, Dexter Filkins, used the term in a public speech in September but not in the paper. Did your reporters express frustration with the no-use policy?
BILL KELLER: Yeah, I had heard that a couple of the reporters thought there was no good case for not using the word, since it meant what most people would understand as the definition of a civil war. Not that, you know, every headline that refers to Iraq says “the Civil War in Iraq,” but you can’t suspend the judgment of people who write the news.
They have to have some latitude to decide when a word is appropriate and when it’s not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you wonder whether maybe this decision has come a little late in the game, that you might be open to charges of being overly concerned with what the Administration wants to call it?
BILL KELLER: No, but in the constellation of things that we have to do that deal with Iraq, including, you know, keeping a large number of correspondents safe and making sure that the story gets well covered and figuring out what the geniuses in Washington propose to do about the war, the discussion of whether or not we use the words "civil war" or not to describe it, you know, don’t rank high on the list of priorities.
We find ourselves in opposition to the White House, this White House and its predecessors, every time we report something they don’t like. We’ve now had four days in a row this week where we have led The New York Times with exclusive stories relating to Iraq that I expect the White House did not want to see in print.
I think that probably bothers them a lot more than whether our correspondents use the phrase "civil war" to describe what’s happening there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thank you so much.
BILL KELLER: It’s a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times.