Taking Dictator-tion

Not-so-subtle clues

Kevin Adams wondered whether journalists are buying in to U.S. foreign policy terminology, subliminally or not.

“I’ve noticed that NPR has been using the term ‘autocrat’ for Gaddafi this week, and I noticed that they were referring to Mubarak as ‘the Egyptian dictator’ a week ago,’” Adams wrote shortly after the unrest began in Libya. “I might be crazy, but I notice loaded words like those and never noticed them before in reference to them. (I also haven’t noticed similar terms used for King Abdullah recently, but he’s an “ally” that hasn’t been overthrown yet.)”

This could be the stuff of Ph.D. dissertations, and requires more research than this simple column is able to do, but let’s deal with this anecdotally.

Before October 2010, a Nexis search of Associated Press articles turns up few calling Hosni Mubarak a dictator outright, outside of direct quotations. Most referred to him as “a U.S. ally.” To be sure, some references to the tenor of his rule were thinly veiled, as in these passages from an AP article about the inauguration of a new president of Senegal:

Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s 80-year-old president, was inaugurated Tuesday before a crowd of 60,000, including over 20 African heads of state, among them statesmen and dictators. … In attendance were Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s flamboyant dictator who recently celebrated 30 years of rule, as well as Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was there and also Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, the leader of a military junta which led a coup in Mauritania two years ago, then turned over the country to a democratically elected government.
Mubarak is placed squarely in the midst of people openly criticized for the harshness of their governance.

“Dictator” has a particularly negative sound to it, connoting evil or at least little tolerance of disagreement. But “dictator” is a value judgment: A mayor who bans outdoor smoking in his city, for example, is a “dictator” to some; to others he is a savior of public health.

It’s not just “dictator” that tells a reader that “we don’t like them.” Other loaded words include “regime,” “iron rule,” “autocratic,” “repressive,” etc. Even “junta” has the smell of the banana republic about it. (So far, few have referred to the military’s temporary governance of Egypt as a “junta,” even though Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “junta” as “a group of political intriguers; esp., such a group, of military men in power after a coup d’├ętat.”)

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is usually treated with more respect. His country may have “repressive policies,” but those negative words generally do not soil the royal family itself. Euphemisms seem to, um, reign (another negative word when applied to non-monarchies).

As for Libya, where the U.S. was never that fond of Muammar Gaddafi, publications referred to him most often as a “strongman” or “iron-fisted ruler” before the recent unrest, though “dictator” popped up frequently. Now, “dictator” seems to be the word of choice for Mouammar Kadhafi.

Oh, you noticed all those different spellings for the guy who runs Libya (at least as of this writing)? ABC News once traced 112 different spellings of his name, and blamed non-standardization of Arabic transliteration for the proliferation. But why do news outlets have so many variations for Mo’ammar el-Gadhafi, while other transliterated Arabic names seem limited to so few (Koran, Quran, and Qur’an, for example)? Seems we could use a strong hand there.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,