Iraq Is a Civil War: Media Dominoes Falling

For months, the media have been torn over use of the term "civil war" to describe the descent into outright murder and torture in Iraq. Apparently the utter chaos and carnage of the past week has finally convinced some to use "civil war" without apology -- with NBC News and MSNBC joining in today in a major way -- but many still hold back, an E&P survey today shows.

The Los Angeles Times was one of the first newspapers to flatly describe the conflict as a "civil war" -- without the usual qualifiers of "approaching" or "near" -- and did again in the first paragraph of a news report on Saturday. The Christian Science Monitor today refers to a "deepening civil war."

But the main Washington Post story today continued to use "sectarian strife." A widely published Reuters dispatch today adopted "sectarian conflict," and McClatchy, in a report from Baghdad, relied on "sectarian violence." Other papers declared that Iraq is on the verge of civil war, but has not gotten there yet, with an Associated Press story calling Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's visit to Iran an effort to prevent "Iraq's sectarian violence from sliding into an all-out civil war."

In a bombshell, however, Matt Lauer on the Today show this morning revealed that NBC had studied and perhaps debated the issue anew, and then decided that it will now use "civil war" freely. "For months the White House rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war," he said. "For the most part news organizations like NBC hesitated to characterize it as such. After careful consideration, NBC News has decided the change in terminology is warranted, and what is going on in Iraq can now be characterized as civil war."

He explained: "We should mention we didn't just wake up on a Monday morning and say let's call this a civil war. This took careful deliberation. We consulted with a lot of people." One of them was retired Gen. Barry McCaffery, a longtime NBC consultant, who told Lauer he had been using the expression "civil war" for quite some time, with the qualifier "low grade."

Lauer added: "The White House objects to the terminology that NBC News is now using, and here is part of the statement that they've released: 'While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither Prime Minister Maliki nor we believe that Iraq is in a civil war.' It goes on to say that 'the violence is largely centered around Baghdad, and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi security forces is at the top of the agenda when President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki meet later this week in Jordan.'"

Asked about the civil war tag, CNN's Michael Ware said on Friday from Baghdad: "Well, firstly, let me say, perhaps it's easier to deny that this is a civil war, when essentially you live in the most heavily fortified place in the country within the Green Zone, which is true of both the prime minister, the national security adviser for Iraq and, of course, the top U.S. military commanders. However, for the people living on the streets, for Iraqis in their homes, if this is not civil war, or a form of it, then they do not want to see what one really looks like."

In his column in this week's Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria pulls no punches: "We're in the middle of a civil war and are being shot at by both sides. There can be no more doubt that Iraq is in a civil war, in which leaders of both its main communities, Sunnis and Shiites, are fomenting violence."

The Los Angeles Times story by Solomon Moore had opened: "Iraq's civil war worsened Friday as Shiite and Sunni Arabs engaged in retaliatory attacks after coordinated car bombings that killed more than 200 people in a Shiite neighborhood the day before. A main Shiite political faction threatened to quit the government, a move that probably would cause its collapse and plunge the nation deeper into disarray."

The Los Angeles Times since October has been calling it a civil war, Marjorie Miller, the newspaper's foreign editor, told the Associated Press today. "It's a very simple calculation," she said. "It's a country that's tearing itself apart, one group against another group or several groups against several groups. What country even admits that it is in the midst of a civil war?"

Editors at the Associated Press have discussed the issue and haven't reached a definitive stance, said John Daniszewski, international editor. Most often, the conflict is called "the war in Iraq" or identified with descriptive terms such as sectarian fighting, anti-government attacks or ethnic clashes, he said.

He pointed to the different definitions experts have for civil wars. "From a historical point of view, not every civil war is called by that name, and wars by their very nature are not always neatly categorized," he said, in an AP report. "For instance, the American Revolutionary War, the Vietnam War and the more recent wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were all civil wars according to the broader definition, yet we do not normally think or speak of them that way."

Officials at both ABC News and CBS News said that they discuss the situation all the time, but that there's no network policy to use the term civil war, AP added. "We are not there yet," said Paul Slavin, ABC News senior vice president, noting differing definitions.

But MSNBC's Contessa Brewer said this morning on the air: "Now, the battle between Shiites and Sunnis has created a civil war in Iraq. Beginning this morning, MSNBC will refer to the fighting in Iraq as a civil war -- a phrase the White House continues to resist. But after careful thought, MSNBC and NBC News decided over the weekend, the terminology is appropriate, as armed militarized factions fight for their own political agendas. We'll have a lots more on the situation in Iraq and the decision to use the phrase 'civil war.'"

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that some scholars are calling the Iraq conflict a "civil war. " A civil war, it explained, is commonly defined by two criteria: two warring groups fighting for control over political power, and at least 1,000 deaths with at least 100 from each side. Criteria that Iraq meets, easily.

For videos of The Daily Show's take on the civil war language game, go HERE. For Keith Olbermann's comparison to Cronkite's shift on Vietnam, go HERE.

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