The Language of War and the Ethics of Journalism

Text of a presentation by Peter Y. Sussman at the Carlos McClatchy Memorial Symposium at Stanford University on May 22, 2003

Sticks and stones are not in widespread use in modern warfare, but words are. Words — journalists’ words — have become weapons, especially in the so-called War on Terror … or Terrorism … or … Terrorists

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, a few general observations about journalists’ ethical obligations.

Traditionally, there are special ethical constraints on journalists in wartime – such as not revealing troop positions – but the very word “war” has become more ambiguous. What is “war”? We certainly use the term for far more than declared wars. The president has said several times, most recently in March: “… so long as there’s a terrorist network like al-Qaeda and others willing to fund them, finance them, equip them, we’re at war.” And he doesn’t mean that in a metaphorical sense, as in the War on Poverty. We’re in a state of armed combat, sending troops hither and yon, without known limits. There is ample evidence that the president means the term literally. Let me give just one example. A senior official told the New York Times:

“If we find a high-value target somewhere, anywhere, in the world, and if we have the forces to get there and get to them, we should get there and get to them.”

That, I think, is a fairly accurate description of this perpetual state of war against ill-defined enemies.

Is the press obligated to rein in its coverage any time the president invokes the word “war,” in this case to describe an unending state of real and potential combat against various unrelated “enemies”-of-the-moment who are suspected by the administration of engaging in something called “terror”? As an example, if troops have been sent to Colombia to protect oil shipments to American tankers from so-called “terrorists,” is that off-limits to journalists, under the troop-positions-in-wartime understanding?

The White House, directly or indirectly, has invoked the wartime obligation in requesting that journalists curtail their coverage of taped statements by Osama bin Laden. It is also the implied reason why journalists have been chastised for examining various civilian security vulnerabilities, including those at airports and power plants. This is wartime, , it is argued, and we are under [actual or potential] attack.

Journalists do have an ethical obligation – in the words of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics – to “minimize harm.” But they also have an obligation to seek and report truth, and reports on infrastructure vulnerability can alert the public to needed improvements as well as alert hypothetical terrorists to our achilles heels.

The administration justified its bin Laden tape request partly on the ground that his statements were “propaganda.” That’s another pesky word. I suspect that the meaning of the word “propaganda” and the emotional weight it carries have shifted over time. The press certainly has a responsibility to question whether those taped comments are rightly considered “propaganda” or a window into the mind of a deadly fanatic. In light of changing values and the changing nature of warfare, journalists should also reassess what’s wrong with letting citizens of a free and open society hear propaganda, if that’s what it is. But even to ask these questions at such a highly charged time is to risk the hostility of the public.

The SPJ Code of Ethics reminds us that “Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.” But too often that responsibility to be accountable is read as an obligation to pander to the ephemeral whims of a fickle audience. The code also says, more helpfully, that journalists should “clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct” – including, I would argue, publication of what some government officials might claim is “enemy propaganda.”

Despite the patriotic and emotional winds swirling around such issues, I think we’d have fewer problems with words like “war” and “propaganda” – and wartime coverage issues generally – if we carefully re-examined such issues in view of new circumstances and explained our decision-making to the public.

Parenthetically, one might also ask whether the press is partly responsible for the shifting associations of the word “war.” For instance, has the constant metaphorical use of the term – War on Poverty, War on Drugs – helped to de-terrorize the word and lower the threshold for initiating wars, including now pre-emptive attacks? Is there anything the press could or should have done to restore to the word “war” the shock and awe it once possessed? I don’t know the answer to that, but the question bears asking.

A corollary of the linguistic problem with the word “war” is that if we are at war, then those on the other side of the fence – whoever they may be – are our “enemies.” The Bush administration has justified any number of actions by invoking that word “enemies.” There are said to be enemies within this country, as well as abroad. Some are detained secretly, under purported wartime authority – and off-limits to the press.

The administration called a Los Angeles airport killer, apparently acting alone, not a “criminal” but a “terrorist.” Such linguistic distinctions affect journalists’ coverage. Certainly journalists are under pressure to view some people and incidents differently because, after all, these people are “enemies.” To my ear there are uncomfortable echoes of the McCarthy era, when our vaguely defined national “enemies” were said not only to be lurking in our communities but scattered throughout the government as well.

The challenge for journalists is to become more sophisticated in distinguishing the president’s politically driven targets-of-the-moment from those terrorists who are legitimately dangerous, as well as to assess the danger in reporting on them – sometimes in defiance of a security-obsessed administration. Says Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: “The tricky part … is divining what crosses the line, especially with an administration that seems prepared to throw a star-spangled blanket over just about everything this side of Dick Cheney’s file cabinet.”

We must redefine the news media’s wartime obligations so that journalists can fulfill their ethical responsibilities and assure that a perpetual state of so-called war does not keep our citizens in a perpetual state of ignorance. The process begins with the meaning of that troublesome word “war.”

I mentioned earlier that words have become weapons of war. Let me elaborate.

Among the troops fighting the Iraqi war were Pentagon I.O. specialists – that’s Information Operations … propaganda, if you will. These people do their fighting in offices, not armed personnel carriers. They are the ones who dream up the words the U.S. wants Saddam Hussein to hear when he turns on CNN or BBC in his bunker.

Not only are words weapons, but the government would like the news media to pull the trigger. “Shock and awe,” “liberation,” “weapons of mass destruction” – it’s important to recognize that those and other powerful terms were coined or applied by White House and Pentagon p.r. specialists for their effect on the Iraqis or on domestic or global public opinion. When journalists adopt those words uncritically in their coverage, they become willing propagandists, not independent observers and commentators.

Are American and British troops truly “coalition” forces, as most of the American media refer to them? The coalition was in fact a made-in-Washington public relations fiction – a coalition of three, at most, on the battlefields. Nearer to Baghdad it was a coalition of one.

Do the names Ali Hassan Al Majid, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash and Rihab Taha mean anything to you? They are known to U.S. news consumers as “Chemical Ali,” “Mrs. Anthrax” (also known as “Chemical Sally”) and “Dr. Germ.” What does that tell us about the news coverage? Wouldn’t you like to know who coined those monikers that are repeated ad nauseam by American journalists to describe real people, not characters in the board game Clue? Their alleged crimes are seemingly confirmed by the very words journalists use to label them in supposedly impartial accounts.

I did a Google search on those names and found various shorthand references to their origin. Some news reports said those three individuals were “popularly called” by those incriminating names. Others said they were “called by Western journalists” or “known as” or “dubbed in the West,” “dubbed by the tabloid press,” “dubbed in the media” or “known to foes as” Chemical Ali, Mrs. Anthrax and Dr. Germ. Far less frequently they were described as “known by U.S. intelligence” by those names or “dubbed by the U.S. government” or “known to U.S. officials as.” Other news organizations said they were “known to western diplomats and observers” or to “Pentagon officials” or “U.N. inspectors” by those names.

I don’t know the true origins of the incriminating nicknames that were slung around so carelessly in the press, but I can guess. There may be a linguistics thesis in tracking those nicknames back to their origins. Whoever first used the incriminating names, the press picked them up wholesale, to the detriment of the independence and fairness that ethical codes ask of them.

Other words that have carried important but unacknowledged baggage along with them could be found in the ubiquitous logos that framed the war coverage. Logos provide a form of conditioning – a definition of the ways in which readers are to understand the news that accompanies them.

Think about the differences, for instance, between the logos War with Iraq and War on Iraq. Interestingly, the war looks different north of our border. CTV used the logo “Target Iraq,” and CBC used “Attack on Iraq,” both of which emphasize accurately that this country was the aggressor in the war. Operation Iraqi Freedom, used by several networks and stations, was a label created by government p.r. specialists and picked up uncritically by the press for use as a supposedly descriptive logo.

A Texas television station’s logo for the Iraqi war was “War on Terror,” though there had been no evidence of recent Iraqi terror attacks on Americans. And then there was “Showdown with Saddam,” which was in widespread use before the outbreak of combat. That logo served to distort the dispute by personalizing and otherwise misrepresenting it, in accordance with administration logic but ignoring a fact that was obvious to most of the rest of the world — that we weren’t actually attacking one man; we ultimately invaded an entire country.

Some words have been notable for their omission in news coverage. The press seemed to shy away from calling the Iraq war an invasion – though of course it was. Al-Jazeera, by the way, referred to “invading Americans” or “invading forces.” After criticism, the network felt called upon to defend its use of the term. A spokesman explained it this way: “We took our cue from early Pentagon briefings where it was described as an invasion. … We would be biased to call it ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom.’”

While the terms “terror” and “terrorist” were bandied about indiscriminately in this country’s press coverage of events since September 11, NPR and some newspapers have been attacked for not calling Palestinian suicide bombers “terrorists.” One media ethicist asked: Is a secret Israeli government decision to put plastique in a Palestinian’s cell phone “terrorism” too? What about leveling his mother’s house with bulldozers?

By adopting reflexively and uncritically such administration characterizations as “weapons of mass destruction,” the news media glossed over indigestible contradictions, such as the fact that Iraq may or may not have possessed such weapons but Israel certainly does.

The news media have used many other terms too glibly, distorting in the process the events they were trying to elucidate. They harped on the anti-Americanism that followed our military “victory,” when what they really meant was “anti-occupationism” – a distinction with some significance. They tossed around the term “victory,” giving the misleading impression that the war was decided on the battlefield. In fact, the press overemphasis on the mechanics of warfare left the American people unable to see the differences between military victory and the complex dynamics – possibly even a slow-motion defeat — that we are seeing unfold in Iraq today.

I think we’d be remiss in discussing the language of war without taking at least passing note of the visual language by which press coverage has been emotionalized and distorted: the red, white and blue graphics, the symbolic language that substituted for accurate reporting, such as the toppling of that Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad. In the San Francisco Chronicle, the photo of the toppled statue took up the entire width of the front page. The headline above it read not “Statue Falls” but “Baghdad Falls.” In fact, Baghdad fell over a several-day period; the statue was simply a symbolic representation of victory in a city that was at the time still the scene of extensive combat.

I don’t want to lay that one only on the Chronicle; the misrepresentation of the toppling of that Hussein statue was pervasive. Many TV networks reacted by pre-empting normal programming for hours. There were the top-dog anchors hosting wall-to-wall coverage of this trivial event, which conveniently happened in front of the foreign journalists’ hotel. The networks filled their nonstop coverage with a seemingly endless play-by-play account of the numerous fruitless attempts by young men to scale the statue before someone found a ladder, about the similarly repetitive and fruitless attempts to lasso the statue’s head before U.S. troops took over the job from the small crowd of unidentified Iraqis (whom the media, by the way, made no apparent attempt to interview, despite the supposedly epochal nature of the event in which they were participating).

The same confusion between symbol and on-the-ground reality characterized much of the coverage elsewhere, as well. Journalists have themselves to blame, but one can’t help sensing in such confusion the fine hand of the Pentagon’s Information Operatives.

I could give many examples of the sloppy language that has distorted coverage of the “war on terror.” Perhaps they were simply careless, but more often than not they seemed to betray a nationalistic or patriotic or even jingoistic orientation that kept the reporter from seeing or communicating to the public a meaningful, well-rounded account of the complexities of the conflicts in which we found ourselves enmeshed.

In one instance of partisan word choice, Dan Rather, at the beginning of the Afghan war, said, “We know that some may come back in flag-draped caskets, but we reluctantly and sadly accept that as a reality of a war forced upon us.” In truth, the attacks of September 11 were “forced upon us”; the nature of the response — the war that followed — proper or not, was our own decision.

Here’s an example of how partisanship creeps unnoticed into news coverage through tortured syntax: The respected John Burns reported on March 22 in the New York Times, “Although a senior Iraqi official told reporters today that two American pilots had been captured, that appeared not to be true, at least according to the Pentagon.” Well, maybe it wasn’t true, but what a contorted, backwards way to report a news story! It would normally be written, “A senior Iraqi official reported [or perhaps even claimed] today that two American pilots had been captured, but the Pentagon denied it.”

Here’s a 72-point headline from the San Jose Mercury News: “SADDAM’S CHOICE: EXILE OR WAR.” In fact, many people around the world would have seen that not as Saddam’s choice but as Bush’s choice for Saddam – an ultimatum, in fact.

And then there were those military analysts, some of them cleared through the Pentagon in advance and paid to comment as quasi-journalists on the execution of war policies that they sometimes helped to devise. They and also the embedded reporters were given the leeway to refer to troops by such loaded partisan terms as “us” and “them” (or even “the bad guys”).

Which brings me to a final observation:

We are witnessing not only a new kind of war, but a new kind of journalism, a global journalism. Al-Jazeera’s broadcasts are seen, often instantaneously, in this country, and CNN’s elsewhere in the world. The web has helped make this a global mediascape. Should we therefore be reconsidering the ethical values and cultural assumptions “embedded” (so to speak) in the words we use to describe America’s ongoing war or wars? For example, what does it mean in such an environment to say that the press has an ethical obligation to protect “our” troops.

Language is the lens through which journalists report to the public on news developments. All too often, journalists get their lens, their language, from the government or from their own national allegiances. At times during the so-called War on Terror, it has seemed to me that I was watching these disputes through someone else’s glasses.

Peter Y. Sussman is a member of the national Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists and was a co-author of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. Recently he has been conducting a series of workshops around the country on wartime journalism ethics.