This newspaper reader winces every time he reads in The Post or other papers that terrorists inflicting death and injury "claimed credit" or "took responsibility" for an act of violence. To give a positive note to such inhumane conduct is a perversion of language.
On Monday The Post wrote of a time bomb that exploded in a crowded bar in Athens that wounded 57 Americans, including 13 U.S. servicemen and dependents. In the second paragraph, the Associated Press reported, "A previously unheard-of group, the National Front, claimed the bombing and warned of further attacks 'against the Americans who are responsible for the continued situation in Cyprus.'
Bad enough that some group should think this is the way to solve an ancient dispute, but "claimed the bombing" sounds as if this were some honor. Continuing to report such events in such language is a discredit to the media. In the same article, the Associated Press reminded that another terrorist group "called November 17 claimed responsibility for killing" two American officials in 1976 and 1983. "Responsibility" is an affirmative quality, claimed by leaders and heroes. Is it not abused in the context of assassins?
A Washington student of semantics, Jim Guirard Jr., former Capitol Hill aide and now governmental affairs consultant, has provided some help for journalists reporting future atrocities. He offers two lists -- one to provide verbs that may be appropriate to the circumstances and the second, nouns describing the action. Put the two together and a reporter can provide facts as well as proper tone. Ready?
Party X called the AP (or other media) to:
* "confess guilt" "for the atrocity."
* "admit culpability" "for the crime."
* "acknowledge blame" "for the terrorist act."
* "assume complicity" "for the outrage."
* "disclose involvement" "in the wrongdoing."
* "announce its participation" "in the death of -- ."
* "boast" "of its terrorism."
This could be a start for a truth-in- labeling exercise to set facts straight when terrorism intrudes on decent society.
Most readers probably don't give a hoot, but Monday the annual Washington journalism high jinks over publication of the president's proposed budget wound up in mixed claims over who broke the Monday 1:30 p.m. embargo first.
The whole budget-release process is now such a mess that good intentions have become the vehicle for shoddy ethics. The White House is the starting point for the rush to publish, handing the media hefty volumes in advance of the deadline to permit careful reading and explanation by agencies. Copies are also delivered to congressional staffs so they should be in the know when news people call for clarification (and can take credit for projects in their districts).
Since congressmen do not necessarily consider themselves bound by White House embargoes (coequal branches of government, etc.) and do want to keep friendly with news folk, lots of helpful hints are dropped, sometimes pages copied, indeed, maybe even a volume handed over with the cover embargo torn off to ease the conscience of the leaker. Most papers keep reporters who have been in on the executive-branch briefings apart from the reporters who paddle the congressional corridors keeping afloat in the sea of leaks.
But when the leaked stories get into print, some editors argue that the details are so numerous that the embargo dam has burst and all deadline levees are gone. This year, depending on which paper you read, The New York Times and the Associated Press were blamed for the Saturday morning gushers. (The Times Monday pinned the rose on the Gannett News Service.) Over the weekend others, including The Post, joined the rush, but The Washington Times took a six-column headline Monday to note that it was honoring the battered embargo.
I thought one of the best comments came from Richard T. Cooper, Washington news editor for the Los Angeles Times, "It's not as if this document is going to be the blueprint for actual spending or anything."