MEDIA ADVISORY: “Terrorism” Is a Term that Requires Consistency: Newspaper and its critics both show a double standard on “terror”

A group called Minnesotans Against Terrorism (MAT)– which includes Gov. Jesse Ventura, Sen. Paul Wellstone and other prominent political figures– has condemned the Minneapolis Star Tribune for what it calls a “double standard” on the use of the word “terrorism.” But in fact, neither the newspaper nor the organization applies the term “terrorism” in a consistent way– a problem that is widespread throughout U.S. media.

April 8, 2002

A group called Minnesotans Against Terrorism (MAT)– which includes Gov. Jesse Ventura, Sen. Paul Wellstone and other prominent political figures– has condemned the Minneapolis Star Tribune for what it calls a “double standard” on the use of the word “terrorism.” But in fact, neither the newspaper nor the organization applies the term “terrorism” in a consistent way– a problem that is widespread throughout U.S. media.

The organization’s grievance against the Star Tribune is that the paper says it avoids using the term “terrorist” in its reports on the Mideast conflict. As the paper’s assistant managing editor, Roger Buoen, explained in a comment to the paper’s ombudsman (2/3/02):

“Our practice is to stay away from characterizing the subjects of news articles but instead describe their actions, background and identity as fully as possible, allowing readers to come to their own judgments about individuals and organizations.

“In the case of the term ‘terrorist,’ other words– ‘gunman,’ ‘separatist’ and ‘rebel,’ for example– may be more precise and less likely to be viewed as judgmental. Because of that we often prefer these more specific words.

“We also take extra care to avoid the term ‘terrorist’ in articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of the emotional and heated nature of that dispute.”

This policy of avoiding the term “terrorism” in favor of more specific descriptions is a defensible policy– so long as it is applied consistently. But Buoen went on to acknowledge that the paper does make exceptions:

“However, in some circumstances in which non-governmental groups carry out attacks on civilians, the term is permitted. For example, Al Qaeda is frequently referred to by the Star Tribune and other news organizations as a ‘terrorist network,’ in part because its members have been convicted of terrorist acts and because it has been identified by the United States and other countries as a terrorist organization.”

Here the paper is making distinctions that are not defensible. First, to limit “terrorism” to “nongovernmental groups” is an illogical restriction. Does a plane being blown up stop being terrorism if it turns out that some nation’s intelligence agency secretly ordered its destruction? To make such an arbitrary distinction over the use of a word with such powerful connotations certainly doesn’t sound like “allowing readers to come to their own judgments.” (The Star Tribune’s ombudsman noted that the Associated Press also reserves the word “terrorist” for non-governmental groups.)

Similarly, to decide that it is all right to label Al Qaeda as a “terrorist network,” not because its specific actions fit a definition of terrorism, but because the U.S. government has used that label in public statements or in legal actions, is not allowing readers to make up their minds but letting the state make up their minds for them.

Furthermore, the September 11 attacks are certainly an “emotional and heated” subject– probably more so than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for most of the Star Tribune’s readers. Since the reasons the paper cites for calling Al Qaeda “terrorist” also apply to the Palestinian organization Hamas, one can’t help but wonder if the Star Tribune’s different treatment of these groups has to do with the greater degree of outrage its readers would feel if the paper declined to use the term in Al Qaeda’s case.

So MAT has a point when it charges the paper with a double standard. But the organization itself has a similar double standard when it comes to its definition of terrorism. “Calling the targeted killing of innocent civilians anything but terrorism is completely unconscionable,” says Marc Grossfield, the group’s co-founder, in a press release (4/2/02). But do they really mean it?

FAIR asked Grossfield if his organization would refer to the bombing of Hiroshima as a terrorist act. “No, we would not,” he responded. Yet it would seem to fit MAT’s definition precisely: Hiroshima was targeted precisely because the city, lacking significant military targets, had escaped previous bombing damage, so its destruction by a single bomb would send the starkest possible message to Japan about the price the nation would pay if it refused to surrender. So why isn’t that targeting of civilians, who died on a scale undreamed of by any suicide bomber, considered to be terrorism?

“The use of weapons of mass destruction in WWII against an evil force who had engaged in genocide is not something that this organization is willing to judge,” was MAT’s official response.

So targeting civilians stops being terrorism when it’s done to combat an “evil force.” Of course, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who targeted civilians anywhere who did not consider the force they were fighting to be “evil.” This is a definition of terrorism that hinges on whether or not one agrees with the reasons for killing civilians.

In fact, the only consistent definition of terrorism is based on the deliberate killing of civilians to achieve political goals– not on whether the killers are backed by a state or not, and certainly not on the methods they choose to use to kill their victims. A consistent definition, however, is one that virtually no news organization would be willing to use.

They would have to refer to the “terrorist” bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to U.S. support for “terrorist” governments in Central America that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, to the U.S.’s “terrorist” attacks on civilian infrastructure in Iraq and Yugoslavia. (The attacks on water treatment facilities in Iraq alone have certainly– and deliberately– killed more civilians than any Palestinian group; see The Progressive, 9/01.)

And they would have to use the word “terrorism” to describe actions by both sides in the Israeli-Palestian conflict. Consider a May 1996 report from Human Rights Watch on Israel’s tactics in Lebanon earlier that year:

“In significant areas in southern Lebanon whole populations– indeed anyone who failed to flee by a certain time– were targeted as if they were combatants…. The intention of the warnings that were broadcast and subsequent shelling is likely to have been to cause terror among the civilian population…. The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] also executed what appear to have been calculated direct attacks on purely civilian targets…. The IDF at times hindered and even attacked ambulances and vehicles of relief organizations, and carried out a number of attacks on persons attempting to flee the area.”

If news organizations are prepared to describe such tactics as terrorism, then they should consistently apply the same term to non-governmental groups that target civilians. If media are unwilling or unable to be consistent, then they should, indeed, avoid the use of the word “terrorism,” instead describing specific activities and letting readers make up their own minds what they should be called.

Author: FAIR

News Service: Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

URL: http://www.fair.org