Over the last two days, print and televised media have managed to work themselves into a state of high dudgeon over NBC News’ decision to call the violence in Iraq a “civil war” — with some reporters trying to pinpoint exactly when Iraq tipped toward this sad, ugly state of affairs. In the process, Walter Cronkite’s famous 1968 commentary about the Vietnam War being all but lost has been dragged out repeatedly as the resonant analogy, no matter how inapt.
But before we get into all that, let’s review the media echo chamber of the last few days. On Sunday, the New York Times’ Edward Wong wrote a piece for the paper’s Week in Review section which asked, “Is Iraq in a civil war?” The upshot: some scholars say yes, White House officials say no, and as usual, the Times didn’t say either way.
Then yesterday the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, released a statement saying that the paper would begin using the term “civil war” “sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect.” Similarly, it seems (and with no one really noticing) the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times and McClatchy newspapers have been using the term lately, as well.
But not everyone is so bold. The Washington Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., told E&P that “We just describe what goes on every day. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.” Talk about inspired leadership. With the boss telling you to do no more than simply “describe what goes on every day,” one gets a better idea why Post reporters Jim VandeHei and John Harris recently jumped ship. Despite Downie’s demurral, on Hardball last night, Post reporter Dana Priest told Chris Matthews that, given everything she’s seen in Iraq, “absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”
Whether it is or isn’t a civil war — though with Sunnis and Shia murdering one another in record numbers, we’re not sure “sectarian strife” really cuts it anymore — it’s disappointing to note, yet again, the incredibly short memories most news organizations have. CJR Daily wrote — eighteen months ago — that some in the mainstream press had begun to use the term civil war in 2004. And even then it was something that had been popping up practically since the war in Iraq began. So why all the fuss now?
Every story has its tipping point, and this semantic debate was inevitable. It’s unfortunate, though, that so much of the debate within the press must be about the press itself. And here is where the self-serving Cronkite comparisons come into play. Yesterday, USA Today’s Peter Johnson quoted Tom McPhail, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, as saying that NBC’s decision is “a defining and negative moment” in the war, “like when Walter Cronkite said on air that the Vietnam War was lost.”
Likewise, on his show last night, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann asked, “Is this the ‘Walter Cronkite moment’ of the Iraq War?” and the Christian Science Monitor’s Tom Regan wrote today that “Media specialists are comparing it to the moment when former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite declared in 1968 that America was losing the war in Vietnam.”
But is it? Let’s take a look at what Cronkite actually said during that famous February 27, 1968 CBS News broadcast: “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds … For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. … And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.”