The Media’s “Political Correctness” Problem in Covering War and Conflict


I am in Los Angeles this morning and was drawn to two op-eds that ran in today’s Los Angeles Times, one by Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and the other by journalist Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent of Britain’s The Independent.
I like Haass and often agree with him, but the “messy, barely a democracy” scenario he holds out as probably the best we can hope for in Iraq depends on U.S. forces being able to forestall the civil war he fears.
I have a different view as I believe that U.S. forces and the “brand name of America” have become so tainted in Iraq that we can’t achieve our objectives, have become targets ourselves, and unless we internationalize the face of occupation, as well as institution building efforts and aid to Iraq, the civil war will rage anyway with Americans being targeted and blamed for the instability. His scenario is not necessarily wrong, but mine is plausible and perhaps even more probable.
Haass’s piece though should be read because he is a serious analyst who is taking many far more conservative than he and walking them towards acknowledging less-than-rosy, more likely scenarios in Iraq than the White House has been portraying.
However, the stem-winder article today is “Telling it Like it Isn’t” by Robert Fisk who has written the irreverent, honest piece I wish I had written on the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict and on war coverage in general.
It’s a devastating critique of how global media — not just American — have become complicit in the selling of wars, occupation, and colonization.
He opens with a vignette of his farewell to a Boston Globe correspondent and then writes:

“I used to call the Israeli Likud Party ‘right wing,’ ” he said. “But recently, my editors have been telling me not to use the phrase. A lot of our readers objected.” And so now, I asked? “We just don’t call it ‘right wing’ anymore.”
Ouch. I knew at once that these “readers” were viewed at his newspaper as Israel’s friends, but I also knew that the Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu was as right wing as it had ever been.
This is only the tip of the semantic iceberg that has crashed into American journalism in the Middle East. Illegal Jewish settlements for Jews and Jews only on Arab land are clearly “colonies,” and we used to call them that. I cannot trace the moment when we started using the word “settlements.” But I can remember the moment around two years ago when the word “settlements” was replaced by “Jewish neighborhoods” — or even, in some cases, “outposts.”
Similarly, “occupied” Palestinian land was softened in many American media reports into “disputed” Palestinian land — just after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in 2001, instructed U.S. embassies in the Middle East to refer to the West Bank as “disputed” rather than “occupied” territory.
Then there is the “wall,” the massive concrete obstruction whose purpose, according to the Israeli authorities, is to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from killing innocent Israelis. In this, it seems to have had some success. But it does not follow the line of Israel’s 1967 border and cuts deeply into Arab land. And all too often these days, journalists call it a “fence” rather than a “wall.” Or a “security barrier,” which is what Israel prefers them to say. For some of its length, we are told, it is not a wall at all — so we cannot call it a “wall,” even though the vast snake of concrete and steel that runs east of Jerusalem is higher than the old Berlin Wall.
The semantic effect of this journalistic obfuscation is clear. If Palestinian land is not occupied but merely part of a legal dispute that might be resolved in law courts or discussions over tea, then a Palestinian child who throws a stone at an Israeli soldier in this territory is clearly acting insanely.
If a Jewish colony built illegally on Arab land is simply a nice friendly “neighborhood,” then any Palestinian who attacks it must be carrying out a mindless terrorist act.
And surely there is no reason to protest a “fence” or a “security barrier” — words that conjure up the fence around a garden or the gate arm at the entrance to a private housing complex.
For Palestinians to object violently to any of these phenomena thus marks them as a generically vicious people. By our use of language, we condemn them.
We follow these unwritten rules elsewhere in the region. American journalists frequently used the words of U.S. officials in the early days of the Iraqi insurgency — referring to those who attacked American troops as “rebels” or “terrorists” or “remnants” of the former regime. The language of the second U.S. pro-consul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, was taken up obediently — and grotesquely — by American journalists.

This is a powerful and important perspective that should remind journalists, bloggers, academics, and public intellectuals in general that their job is to keep the state from becoming a self-justifying system that undermines our liberties and democratic form of government. America is tilting towards a “national security state” that has too many vested interests that thrive from a “high-fear” world rather than one of lower fear and higher trust.
Candid and honest journalism have been undermined by scandals ranging from Stephen Glass to Jayson Blair to Judith Miller — but there are worse out there. And the celebritization of journalists has also had disturbingly corrupting consequences as James Fallows once bravely wrote about in his book, Breaking the News: How Media Undermine American Democracy.
More later on this subject, but Fisk’s piece certainly did inspire some hope that media might just be able to make its way back to the oversight function that it should play in our brand of democracy.
— Steve Clemons