Saturday, December 20, 2008

The New York Times: Separating the Terror and the Terrorists

The December 14, 2008 column by The New York Times public editor Robert Hoyt, Separating the Terror and the Terrorists, caught my attention because it touched upon an issue of great concern to terror victims and their families-- the general reluctance of the media to call a spade a spade. It was worth a letter to the public editor and off it went. The Times published it as the lead-off letter under Letters To the Public Editor-- Other Voices: When Labels Carry Moral Weight.

The points made by Mr. Hoyt:

"When 10 young men in an inflatable lifeboat came ashore in Mumbai last month and went on a rampage with machine guns and grenades, taking hostages, setting fires and murdering men, women and children, they were initially described in The Times by many labels.

They were “militants,” “gunmen,” “attackers” and “assailants.” Their actions, which left bodies strewn in the city’s largest train station, five-star hotels, a Jewish center, a cafe and a hospital — were described as “coordinated terrorist attacks.” But the men themselves were not called terrorists."

Mr. Hoyt attempts to explain the "reluctance" of the Times and other news sources to call a terrorist a terrorist.

In the newsroom and at overseas bureaus, especially Jerusalem, there has been a lot of soul-searching about the terminology of terrorism. Editors and reporters have asked whether, to avoid the appearance of taking sides, the paper bends itself into a pretzel or risks appearing callous to abhorrent acts. They have wrestled with questions like why those responsible for the 9/11 attacks are called terrorists but the murderers of a little girl in her bed in a Jewish settlement are not. And whether, if the use of the word terrorist can be interpreted as a political act, not using it is one too.

The issue comes up most often in connection with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and to the dismay of supporters of Israel — and sometimes supporters of the other side, denouncing Israeli military actions — The Times is sparing in its use of “terrorist” when reporting on that complex struggle.

He concludes by writing

I do not think it is possible to write a set of hard and fast rules for the T-words, and I think The Times is both thoughtful about them and maybe a bit more conservative in their use than I would be.

My own broad guideline: If it looks as if it was intended to sow terror and it shocks the conscience, whether it is planes flying into the World Trade Center, gunmen shooting up Mumbai, or a political killer in a little girl’s bedroom, I’d call it terrorism — by terrorists.

Now that caught my eye and off a letter went to the public letter. Here's my response as printed:

Re “Separating the Terror and the Terrorists” (Dec. 14):

I write as the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered by Islamic Jihad in April 1995.

While I appreciate your approach to the use of “T-words” for a situation that “shocks the conscience,” it is, because of its subjective nature, nothing more than a small step, albeit in the right direction.

The general refusal of The New York Times and its writers and editors to recognize that people who intentionally target and murder civilians, whether on a bus in Gaza or in a hotel in Mumbai, are attempting to alter a political situation (the classic definition of terrorism) and are therefore terrorists defies logic.

STEPHEN M. FLATOW West Orange, N.J., Dec. 15, 2008

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