follows in this column you must read with the greatest suspicion
and dubiety. For in the interests of full disclosure, I must inform
my readers that I have a commercial interest in the opinions I am
about to express.
My day job,
when I am not taking a vacation in the sunlit uplands of opinion
journalism here and elsewhere, is that of editor-in-chief of United
Press International. And this column will critically examine the
decision by my counterpart at Reuters, a rival news agency with
a distinguished history and current reputation, to prohibit the
use of the word "terrorists" by their editors and reporters
to describe the people who destroyed the World Trade Center in New
York, drove a plane into the Pentagon, and attempted to hijack the
plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
Here is what
Steven Jukes, Reuter's global head of news, wrote in a memo to his
staff in an internal memo (made available to the world by media
critic Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post): "We all
know," he wrote, "that one man's terrorist is another
man's freedom fighter and that Reuters upholds the principle that
we do not use the word terrorist . . ."
In an interview
Jukes explained this ruling on the grounds that "We're trying
to treat everyone on a level playing field, however tragic it's
been and however awful and cataclysmic for the American people .
And he added
that "we don't want to jeopardize the safety of our staff .
. . in Gaza, the West Bank and Afghanistan . . ."
Let me deal
with these arguments in reverse order.
final point is a legitimate concern that influences every editor
when he makes assignments to a dangerous conflict. Sometimes an
editor will pull out a reporter who has been threatened by locals.
What an editor cannot do, however, is to soften or dilute his agency's
reporting in order to mollify those locals.
strike at the impartiality that should be any news agency's raison
d'etre. And not employing the word "terrorist" to describe
the WTC attackers comes perilously close to softening Reuters' reporting.
What word or
phrase, after all, will now Reuters use to describe them? "Mass
murderers"? That would be accurate enough, indeed almost synonymous
with "terrorists?" For that very reason, however, it would
also be prohibited by Mr. Jukes's ruling.
How about "the
people who attacked the World Trade Center"? That would meet
the most exacting standards of reportorial neutrality. But it would
also be a cumbersome and repetitive device that would open Reuters
then? Or "guerrillas" maybe? But such descriptions would
put those who kill thousands of innocent people on the same level
as striking trade unionists, advocates of civil disobedience, or
even irregular soldiers who nonetheless respect the rules of war.
And this brings up Mr. Jukes's second point about a level playing
It is terrorists
hijacking planes who put themselves on a different and lower level
to other people not the journalists who report their actions
with attempted objectivity. Terrorism is a part of contemporary
reality. To gloss over it is to paint a false picture. And insofar
as that false picture erases the real distinction between, say,
a politician whose power derives from votes and one whose power
derives from bombs, then a serious distortion enters into reporting.
Nor is this
a hypothetical criticism. Much reporting of the conflicts in Northern
Ireland, Colombia, and the Basque country has blurred exactly that
us look at Mr. Jukes's underlying justification that "one man's
terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." By a nice coincidence
this argument was justly characterized on Saturday in Canada's National
Post as "an adolescent sophistry" by the Canadian
poet and journalist, George Jonas.
the sophistry consists of confusing a terrorist's cause with his
is a man who murders indiscriminately, distinguishing neither between
innocent and guilty nor between soldier and civilian. He may employ
terrorism planting bombs in restaurants, or hijacking planes
and aiming them at office towers-in a bad cause or in a good one.
He may be a
Nazi terrorist, or an anti-Nazi terrorist, a Communist or an anti-Communist,
pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel. We may want to defeat his political
cause or see it triumph. For his methods, however, the terrorist
is always to be condemned. Indeed, to describe him objectively is
to condemn him even if his cause is genuinely a fight for
freedom with which we sympathize.
Mr. Jukes's trial and temptation.
Those who sympathize
with the terrorist's cause whether they are Islamic fundamentalists
seeking America's withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, or Spanish citizens
in the Basque country who want an independent Basque state, or Irish
Americans seeking Britain's withdrawal from Northern Ireland
are tempted to overlook or deny his methods. They do not want to
acknowledge that someone is killing innocent people in the name
of a cause they passionately support. They wish to banish such an
uncomfortable truth from their minds. So they do not like to see
him accurately described as a terrorist. It makes them feel guilty
about the support and sympathy they give him; it may even make them
reconsider that support.
decided not to call the perpetrators of the World Trade Center attack
"terrorists," it took a step towards making people feel
less guilty about aiding or sympathizing with such evil. It was
a small step, but an unnecessary one. And it should be retraced.