"News" Labels

What do you call a Sunni Islamist attempting to overthrow a legitimate government through kidnapping, assassination and bombing? For the American print and broadcast press, the answer depends on where the violence is being committed. In simpler times — actually just in the previous decade — they would have been called “terrorists.” Today, however, reporters and editors reserve that term for people who commit or plan to commit, or perhaps just talk trash about committing, acts of violence in the West.

insurgent militant rebel terrorist activist stereotype label propaganda truth news reporting political independence good-guys ideology exploitation enemies threat bad-guysWhen the location is Afghanistan1, Pakistan2, Iraq3 or Nigeria4 the answer to the question is ‘insurgent.’ Although it carries less opprobrium than being labeled a “terrorist,” it is still clearly a designation for one of bad guys.

When the location is Palestine5, Yemen6, Somalia7 or Mali8, however, the answer is ‘militant.’ Here is a word freighted with disapproval yet less threatening for an American news audience than ‘insurgent.’ Although an individual might be identified as a ‘militant animal rights activist’ in news story, or in a cheesy television police drama, identification as an ‘animal rights insurgent’ is unknown. (At least that is true for now. Who knows what kind of threat inflation will occur for in the future.)

Only when the location is Syria9 is a violent Sunni Islamist routinely described as a “rebel.” That deserves recognition because a rebel can be one of the good guys. Indeed, for those exposed to the Star Wars films, the rebels might even have to be the good guys.

Not only are armed Sunni Islamists in Syria rarely referred to as ‘insurgents’ or ‘militants,’ but the Syrian government’s description of its enemies as ‘terrorists’ is consistently challenged in American news coverage.10 Indeed, the tables are turned by describing Damascus not as a government but as a ‘regime.’ Resurrected from the grimmest days of the Cold War, that word cues audiences to respond with suspicion and hostility. Think ‘the regime in Hanoi’ during the War in Vietnam.

This is worse than hack journalism. This is propaganda so obvious it might have been generated in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth. Americans are being instructed to view violent Sunni Islamists very negatively in some countries, less negatively in other countries, and positively in Syria. That they are committing the same heinous acts and for the same ideological reasons is ignored. We have always been allied with Eurasia and have always been at war with Eurasia.

Overthrowing the government of Syria is the foreign policy goal of the Obama administration, and perhaps even more so of the Clinton State Department. American news sources from across the political spectrum are daily sacrificing their journalistic independence to serve that goal. What makes that even more tragic is that it is being exploited by Republicans like John McCain to move beyond the administration’s (barely) covert support for the sort of people we called our enemies not long ago in Afghanistan and Iraq to full scale United States military intervention. Americans are once again being hustled into another wildly expensive and absurdly counterproductive war in the Middle East.

Despite the diversity of news media and diversity of news source ownership in the United States, competition has not resulted in higher quality news coverage of events in the Middle East. We have lost our way and no amount of aerial bombardment will help us find our way back home.

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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.