Naming the Civil War

As GWB steadfastly resists calling the conflict in Iraq a “civil war” despite the pronouncements of many of his own current and ex-military advisers, media outlets also grapple with the nomenclature. E&P reports that starting Monday The Los Angeles Times, NBC and MSNBC, will all be using that troublesome phrase to describe what is going on in Iraq. More interestingly the Washington Post seems to be stuck in a precautionary loop. Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post’s executive editor told E&P:

“We just describe what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

This is typical disingenuous strategic objectivity. The obvious question is how and when does ‘close to civil war’ become simply ‘civil war’? How can a media outlet make ‘very precise’ judgments about such matters? The Post’s top reporter Dana Priest is more revealing:

“Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what’s the thinking on that — and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly — and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this — absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

Priest’s comments reveal that the Post’s caution derives not from some grand commitment to journalistic objectivity it is in fact a text book example of “official source” theory and Stuart Hall’s argument that one of the subtle but highly influential ways official sources hold power over media portrayals is that they are usually the ones that define the language that is used. Hall argues that it is incredibly difficult for other “secondary definers” to move through this initial textual definition of the issue. A classic quote from Hall:

“The more one accepts that how people act will depend in part on how the situations in which they act are defined, and the less one assumes either a natural meaning for things or a universal consensus on what things mean, then the more socially and politically important becomes the process by means of which certain events get recurrently signified in certain ways.” (Rediscovery of Ideology 1982)

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