The Democrats introduced the latter word to portray President Bush’s expected proposal for a troop increase in Iraq in a negative light. Those making the case for “escalation” included Senator Ted Kennedy, who reminded listeners that “the Department of Defense kept assuring us that each new escalation in Vietnam would be the last. Instead, each one led only to the next.” And Nancy Pelosi, in her first week as Speaker of the House, used the words “escalate” and “escalation” six times during an interview on the CBS News program Face the Nation. The next day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued with Chuck Hagel, Republican senator from Nebraska, about the proper choice of words. “I don’t see it, and the president doesn’t see it, as an escalation,” she told Hagel. The exchange continued:

Hagel: Putting 22,000 new troops, more troops in, is not an escalation?

Rice: Well, I think, Senator, escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in. Escalation is also a question of, are you changing the strategic goal of what you’re trying to do? Are you escalating…?

Hagel: Would you call it a decrease, and billions of dollars more that you need for it?

Rice: I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad.

Interestingly, White House Spokesman Tony Snow provided a particularly appropriate analysis. At a press briefing, when reporters pressed him about the proper terminology, he noted that the terms of the debate were being framed by “focus groups.” Then he urged reporters to make their own judgment. “This is your challenge,” he said. “You guys do words for a living. Figure out—rather than trying to ask Democratic or even Republican lawmakers what the proper descriptive term is, you figure it out.”

There was a case to be made on both sides. The Bush administration could claim that the concept of a “surge” had been identified and embraced by the Iraq Study Group, which was somewhat true. (The Baker-Hamilton report said: “We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad…if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective.”) But looking at that same language, critics could argue that the words “short-term” and “surge” are inextricably intertwined and that what the administration was proposing was not short-term, and therefore could not be properly labeled a “surge.” Faced with that linguistic debate, the press overwhelmingly decided to use the word “surge” rather than “escalation.”

But Tony Snow was right: reporters “do words” for a living. There are times when it is as important for the press to be as accurate about the use of language as it is about the reporting of facts. As Orwell pointed out, there are those who would argue that the “struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism….” But Orwell felt that it was a struggle worth waging in the aftermath of the experience of World War II; and it is at least as worthwhile today. The power of the mainstream media may, as some have argued, be on the decline. But as NBC so recently proved, it still has the ability to help define or shape debates and to help determine what language we use. Rather than allowing any political figure or administration to define the terms of public discourse, reporters and editors should examine the issue for themselves and reach an honest conclusion.

As Orwell might have noted, readers, viewers, and listeners—and our own particular form of democracy—require no less.

 

Geoffrey Cowan is the former director of the Voice of America, the former dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and a university professor at the University of Southern California, where he holds the Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership.