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?

From the opposite perspective, American Prospect's Greg Sargent says it's time for one newspaper to get with it:

"The New York Times has agreed to begin describing the Iraq war as a 'civil war.' From a piece just posted at Editor and Publisher:

" ' After consulting with our reporters in the field and the editors who directly oversee this coverage, we have agreed that Times correspondents may describe the conflict in Iraq as a civil war when they and their editors believe it is appropriate,' Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, revealed in a statement sent to E&P. 'It's hard to argue that this war does not fit the generally accepted definition of civil war. . .

" ' We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect. The main shortcoming of 'civil war' is that, like other labels, it fails to capture the complexity of what is happening on the ground. The war in Iraq is, in addition to being a civil war, an occupation, a Baathist insurgency, a sectarian conflict, a front in a war against terrorists, a scene of criminal gangsterism and a cycle of vengeance. We believe 'civil war' should not become reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated.'

"Meanwhile, the Washington Post's executive editor, Leonard Downie, Jr., continues to hold out:

"The Washington Post, however, has made no such announcement. Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, told E&P's Joe Strupp: '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.'

" 'We don't have a policy about it' is a curious dodge. Does that mean the paper's reporters can use the phrase to describe the war in the paper's pages if they so choose? Doesn't look that way . . .

"The Times is now prepared to acknowledge reality. Why is the Post so reluctant to do the same?"

I have no problem in using the phrase. But I don't think every news outlet needs to have an edict from on high.

I continue to believe that the day-to-day coverage of the carnage in Iraq is more important in terms of swaying public opinion than the label that the MSM chooses to slap on the conflict. Did most people think this wasn't a civil war before Lauer et al made the switch? I don't think so.

Here's a vote of no confidence in our ally in the non-civil war:

"A classified memorandum by President Bush's national security adviser expressed serious doubts about whether Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had the capacity to control the sectarian violence in Iraq and recommended that the United States take new steps to strengthen the Iraqi leader's position," the New York Times reports.

"The Nov. 8 memo was prepared for Mr. Bush and his top deputies by Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, and senior aides on the staff of the National Security Council after a trip by Mr. Hadley to Baghdad.

"The memo suggests that if Mr. Maliki fails to carry out a series of specified steps, it may ultimately be necessary to press him to reconfigure his parliamentary bloc, a step the United States could support by providing 'monetary support to moderate groups,' and by sending thousands of additional American troops to Baghdad to make up for what the document suggests is a current shortage of Iraqi forces."

My, this is turning into a leaky administration.

Dick Polman examines the administration's no-civil-war stance:

"Bush is basically stuck with his denial, because if he was to admit that Iraq was embroiled in a civil war, he would then be virtually declaring that the signature mission of his White House tenure had irrevocably failed; and if he did that, he would come under even more pressure to scale back the number of U.S. troops, since few Americans would see the wisdom of allowing our fighting men and women to remain trapped in a civil war. Indeed, the White House has known this for many months; back in August, a White House aide told Newsweek, 'If there's a full-blown civil war, the president isn't going to allow our forces to be caught in the crossfire.'"

NYT columnist Nick Kristof compiles some damning quotes under the headline, "The Cowards Turned Out to Be Right":

"For several years, the White House and its Dobermans helpfully pointed out the real enemy in Iraq: those lazy, wimpish foreign correspondents who were so foolish and unpatriotic that they reported that we faced grave difficulties in Iraq.

"To Paul Wolfowitz, the essential problem was that journalists were cowards. 'Part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors,' Mr. Wolfowitz said in 2004. He later added, 'The story isn't being described accurately.'

"Don Rumsfeld agreed but suggested that the problem was treason: 'Interestingly, all of the exaggerations seem to be on one side. It isn't as though there simply have been a series of random errors on both sides of issues. On the contrary, the steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq.'

"As for Dick Cheney, he saw the flaw in journalists as indolence. 'The press is, with all due respect -- there are exceptions -- oftentimes lazy, often simply reports what someone else in the press says without doing their homework.'

"Mr. Cheney and the others might have better spent their time reading the coverage of Iraq rather than insulting it, because in retrospect those brave reporters based in Baghdad got the downward spiral right."

This USA Today blog has the lowdown on accusations that the Associated Press was wrong in reporting that Shiites burned six Sunni men to death; the AP stands by its story.

At National Review, James Robbins picks up on Jonathan Chait's possibly-tongue-in-cheek New Republic column about bringing back Saddam Hussein:

"Everyone agrees that radical de-Baathification was a blunder, so why not try radical re-Baathification? You want order? Saddam invented it. A bulwark against Iran? He's your guy. Plus, this time around he'll be grateful and cooperative. If not, we hang him. The people? They will be so shocked and awed by the turn of events they'll meekly reassume their traditional roles. No more random killings in the streets, but focused, systematic and orderly massacres in freshly dug pits. No foreign terrorists coming and going as they please, but only doing so on Saddam's orders. Oil exports up, American troops out. It really would be an ideal solution, if it weren't for all those lives we sacrificed on our journey back to square one.

"Even if we declare the democratic experiment dead and seek regime re-change, I do not understand the fascination with Saddam per se. There have to be many dictators in waiting out there, why bring back one who most likely will be very angry at us for all the trouble we put him through? Saddam does not do gratitude. If you want a strongman, wouldn't it be much easier just to hand the reigns over to someone else? Sure, Saddam has a proven record of accomplishment, he knows how to use a political party ruthlessly to dominate a government apparatus and establish totalitarian rule buttressed by secret police and an effective cult of personality, but these days who doesn't?"

Nancy Pelosi has decided she doesn't need the headache of naming an impeached former judge to head the Intelligence Committee--not after the ethics fuss kicked up by her effort to push Jack Murtha as her deputy.

"Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that she would not name Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) as the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, creating new uncertainty around one of the chamber's most important leadership positions," says the L.A. Times. "The possibility that Hastings would get the post created a torrent of criticism, especially because Pelosi pledged to lead 'the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history.' "

Alcee Hastings issued a statement saying: "Sorry, haters, God is not finished with me yet." Earlier, he attacked bloggers.

You may have heard about this poll of "likeability" of politicians, as recounted here by Reuters:

"Democratic Sen. John Kerry, mulling a second bid for the U.S. presidency, finished dead last in a poll released on Monday on the likeability of 20 top American political figures.

"Among those placing ahead of Kerry were about a dozen potential 2008 White House rivals, including Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona."

Which prompts Michael Crowley to ruminate under the headline "AMERICANS KNOW WHO HE IS, AND HAVE PRETTY MUCH DECIDED THEY DON'T LIKE HIM":

"Hard to see how John Kerry runs for president again.

"I honestly feel bad for the guy. Maybe he can hunker down and find a second act, like Ted Kennedy after his presidential ambitions died, as a productive and venerated senator."

I'm not sure that "likeability" translates into approval. Like, does it mean would like to go out to dinner with, but not necessarily who you'd trust with the nuclear arsenal? For the junkies who mainline this stuff, here are the numbers, with the "don't know" percentage in parentheses:

1) Rudolph Giuliani - 64.2. (9)

2) Sen. Barack Obama - 58.8 (41)

3) Sen. John McCain - 57.7 (12)

4) Condoleezza Rice - 56.1 (7)

5) Former President Bill Clinton - 55.8 (1)

6) Sen. Joseph Lieberman - 52.7 (16)

7) NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg - 51.1 (44)

8) John Edwards - 49.9 (20)

9) Sen. Hillary Clinton - 49 (1)

10) N.M. Gov. Bill Richardson - 47.7 (65)

11) Sen. Joseph Biden 47 (52)

12) Rep. Nancy Pelosi 46.9 (34)

13) Gov. Mitt Romney - 45.9 (64)

14) Former VP Al Gore - 44.9 (3)

15) President Bush - 43.8 (1)

16) Sen. Evan Bayh - 43.3 (75)

17) Newt Gingrich - 42 (15)

18) Sen. Bill Frist - 41.5 (53)

19) Sen. Harry Reid - 41.2 (61)

20) Sen. John Kerry - 39.6 (5)

Betsy Newmark is skeptical:

"How many people do you think have even heard of people like [Bill] Richardson, Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, Michael Bloomberg, or even Bill Frist? I just don't think that these guys are nationally famous. I suspect that more than half of the respondents had no idea who those people were so we're getting responses from a minority of those answering the poll. I bet if they did one of those Jay Leno walks on the street asking random people to identify any of those people, people wouldn't have any idea -- perhaps New Yorkers might have heard of Michael Bloomberg, but that would be it."

In case you missed this, as I did, Slate reports on political Googlebombing:

"The November 12 New York Times noted that a familiar Internet prank had been elevated during the recent congressional midterm elections to a campaign tool. The Times called it 'loaded links,' but more typically the technique is called Googlebombing. The idea is to get lots of Web sites to use the same 'anchor text' (i.e., the text you actually see in hyperlinks) to link to a particular Web page.

"Because of the peculiarities of Google's search algorithms, this raises the Google ranking of that Web page much higher than would otherwise be the case. The campaign application is obvious: create a pattern of links that will offer up negative commentary about a particular candidate to Google users. This variety of Googlebombing appears to be the first campaign dirty trick (practitioners prefer the term 'netroots citizen activism') in many a year to be pioneered by Democrats."

Finally, Barbara Walters was that interested in O.J.?

" Newsweek has learned that ABC's Barbara Walters had explored so seriously the idea of doing a Simpson interview to promote the book that when she balked at proceeding, ABC's Entertainment division had to pay Murdoch's publishing arm a 'kill fee' of as much as $1 million."

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