The C-Word

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006; 10:14 AM

When Matt Lauer made his linguistic decree on Monday, I figured we were in for a nice little debate about the meaning of civil war.

Nope. Not a chance. There's a debate, all right, and there's nothing civil about it.

It's like everything else about the Iraq (Fill-in-the-Blank) War: Whatever you do, you get shot at. To the critics, you're either on one side or the other.

Now there's plenty of room to say that NBC is wrong with its civil-war declaration, or that it was a grandstanding move. Instead, the right is accusing the Peacock Network of trying to hurt President Bush and help the Democrats, while the left is demanding to know why other news outlets haven't jumped on the linguistic bandwagon.

In short, the Iraq war is so divisive that we can't agree on what to call it, and we question the journalistic bona fides of those who differ on what our shorthand phrase should be.

This New York Post editorial, for instance, begins and ends by lampooning Lauer:

" 'Today' Show host Matt Lauer -- last heard from describing the progress of Scooby-Doo and SpongeBob SquarePants down Broadway during Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade -- said his network gave 'careful thought and consideration' to its decision. No doubt.

"But that doesn't mean that what's happening in Iraq -- as disturbing as it is -- rises to the level of civil war.

"As the White House noted in disputing NBC's decision, the increasing violence in Iraq is a vicious but localized, largely centered around Baghdad -- hardly a nationwide civil war.

"What's the difference, you might ask; isn't this just a word game? Hardly. . . . Once Iraq becomes, in the public mind, a civil war between opposing factions competing for political power -- and not a case of a terrorist insurgency aimed ultimately at Western civilization -- the sentiment for a hasty withdrawal grows.

"As does NBC's perceived power. Which almost certainly is why NBC made its announcement Monday. But wishing doesn't make it so. And misrepresenting the situation in Iraq in hopes of ending the U.S. commitment there -- and enhancing one's status at home -- won't mitigate the disaster if this country abandons its mission."

I'm still working on the part where NBC gets more power if the conflict is viewed as a civil war. Because the network would be seen as galvanizing support for a pullout? All because of the use of the C-word? Is American support for the war so shaky that a single network's phraseology can cause that support to crumble?

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