If It Looks Like a Duck...

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For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

For months, as Iraq has fallen into chaos, the White House has refused to call the conflict a civil war.

The administration apparently fears that to do so means admitting that the U.S. military has lost control of the situation, which would contradict the sunny picture of imminent victory that President Bush has been trying to paint.

Most of the media have played along, referring to the huge number of killings and bombings between Shia and Sunni Muslims as, for instance, "sectarian strife."

But yesterday, NBC News announced that it would begin referring to the violence as a civil war, and the New York Times followed suit. The Christian Science Monitor is also on board. The Washington Post is not, at least for the moment.

The Today show's co-anchor, Matt Lauer, said on the air that network executives decided that, with militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, "a change in terminology is warranted."

At the New York Times, Executive Editor Bill Keller said correspondents may describe the conflict as a civil war when they deem it appropriate. "It's hard to argue that this war does not fit the generally accepted definition of civil war," Keller said in a statement. He expects the paper to use the phrase "sparingly and carefully," and "not for dramatic effect."

The White House, long accustomed to denying the obvious, stood firm. Spokesman Tony Snow gave an unintentionally hilarious explanation as to why this is not a civil war.

In Iraq, he said, the trouble is caused by groups that, "severally and together, pose a threat to the government."

In a realcivil war, Snow said, "people break up into clearly identifiable, feuding sides, clashing for supremacy within the land."

How does that definition fail to describe what's going on Iraq?

When Jon Stewart played a clip of Snow's comments last night on The Daily Show, the audience rocked with laughter.

The controversy is old news at the L.A. Times, which was the first major news organization to adopt the description, in October.

In today's paper, reporter Matea Gold wrote that NBC's announcement "spotlights a shift in semantics that has quietly taken place on the airwaves and in newsprint as the violence has worsened."

Gold quoted Marjorie Miller, The Times's foreign editor, as saying it's a "fairly simple call."

"Inside one country you have different armed groups fighting with each other," Miller said. "That is the definition of a civil war."

CNN, Gold wrote, has left the description of the violence in Iraq up to its correspondents.

"Anyone who still remains in doubt about whether this is civil war or not is suffering from the luxury of distance," CNN reporter Michael Ware said on the air yesterday from Baghdad.

For the White House, it's another example of the power of words. Bush recently abandoned the phrase "stay the course," after using it repeatedly, when he realized that people took it to mean that he was inflexible about the U.S.'s involvement in Iraq.

In today's Boston Globe, James Steinberg, dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, said, "How you frame a problem frames what the public thinks is the right thing to do."

"If Iraq is a democracy struggling against insurgents and you describe it that way, people might still support you," Steinberg said. "If it is a civil war, it is indisputably the case that Americans will say, 'What are we doing in the middle of a civil war?' "

USA Today quoted Tom McPhail, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, as saying NBC's move is "a defining and negative moment" in the war in Iraq, "like when Walter Cronkite said on air that the Vietnam War was lost."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan