Sunday, May 08, 2011

1,933 words for 'global war on terror'

This note from the AP's "Ask the Editor" feature last week recalls the persistent fables about those canny Eskimos and their kazillion words for snow: What's interesting about it isn't very true, and what's true about it isn't very interesting. And, to borrow from Kindly Dr. P, it's the sort of claim that says more about the social circumstances under which it's made than about any observed facts of language use.

"Global War on Terror" may be an artifact of the Bush administration, but "war on terrorism" (dating to the Carter administration) has been around almost as long as "war on drugs." Here's a USA Today timeline item from May 2001:

• Aug. 20, 1998: President Clinton and his advisers name dissident Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden as America's top enemy in the U.S. war on terrorism and accuse him of being responsible for the embassy bombings.
Do AP stories "confine it to direct quotes"? I don't see how anybody who reads AP copy regularly could think so. "War on terror" has been used casually in AP suggested heds:

Britain's role in war on terror under new scrutiny (May 21, 2010)

... and, at a glance, it's been as routine in AP's texts as in anyone else's:

He said Yemen has proved to be an untrustworthy and unreliable partner in the war on terror
. (May 28, 2009)

In Iraq, long the main focus of America's "Global War on Terror," the loss has been no less bitter. (May 25, 2009)

Sept. 4, 2002: Pelosi, then the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and the panel's Republican chairman, former Rep. Porter J. Goss of Florida, are briefed on the use of harsh interrogation methods in the war on terror. (May 15, 2009)

The Class of 2010 entered West Point four years ago, well after the start of the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. West Point officials say 78 graduates have died in the global war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001.
(May 22, 2010)

When asked whether the new rule would throw open the doors to more fraud, Shinseki stressed the need for more research into PTSD and traumatic brain injury, the war on terror's other "signature" wound. (May 2, 2010)

If last week's proclamation was supposed to make a difference, it didn't:

The Obama administration was investigating whether Pakistan knew Osama bin Laden was hiding deep inside the country as House Speaker John Boehner and top lawmakers insisted the U.S. maintain close ties with the sometimes reluctant ally in the war on terror. (May 3, 2011)

Lawmakers are questioning U.S. aid to Pakistan, something the Obama administration has said is vital to war on terror. (May 5, 2011; missing "the" is as archived at Lexis)

None of that is to say there's nothing interesting about when and how journalists use terms like "war on terror." (If there wasn't, the AP wouldn't be making specious claims about its own style, would it?) What's the difference between War on Terror and "war on terror," for example? Is the "war on terror" exclusively the thing going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or is Iraq (or even Arizona) part of it as well? Who makes those calls and how: does Iraq look more or less like part of the "war on terror" in regional AP stories versus national ones, or in the "prestige" press versus the popular press?

Those aren't sky-is-falling, big-effects, Whorfian questions; they're observations about how journalists make sense of the world in relation to the people they cover, the people they work with and the people they're selling their product to. And if you're interested, yes. There was quite a bit of convergence across media sectors in 2001 and 2002, and things started to look different afterward; in short, the world got a lot more War On Terror in Murdoch-type products and a lot more "war on terror" in the prestige press as the years wore on.

It'd be a real challenge to write a comprehensive stylebook entry for "war on terror," but that's not the same as saying a guideline wouldn't be useful. You could suggest, for example, that "war on terror" is in the category of terms whose meaning can range from the reasonably specific to the nakedly ideological, and that journalists who don't want to be mistaken for political pinballs are advised to use it with caution outside -- and even within -- direct quotes.

Or as the UPI Stylebook put it back in the golden days:

A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist, you are expected to know the difference.

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Blogger Brian B said...

Thanks, fev. You've probably seen these, but ... my adviser Steve Reese and former colleague Seth Lewis wrote a couple of articles on journalists' use of the term "war on terror", and how they generally went for years after 9/11 without questioning it. Illuminating.

11:56 AM, May 09, 2011  

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