NBC News said Monday that its reporters and anchors would begin referring to the ongoing sectarian strife in Iraq as a “civil war,” a move that reflects the news media’s use of increasingly stark language to characterize the escalating violence gripping the country.
NBC’s decision, which came after a particularly deadly series of retaliatory attacks in Baghdad, makes it the first television network to officially adopt the term “civil war,” a description the Bush administration has resisted.
The Times was the first major news organization to formally adopt the description when it began to refer to the hostilities as a civil war in October, without public fanfare. No other major media outlet has made the phrase a matter of policy, although it has cropped up in various news reports.
The White House has exerted pressure on the media not to use the term, journalists said, which led to newsroom caution over the issue. NBC’s announcement spotlights a shift in semantics that has quietly taken place on the airwaves and in newsprint as the violence has worsened along with the public’s view of the situation in Iraq.
“Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer explained NBC’s position at the beginning of the morning show, saying news executives had concluded that the current fighting met the definition of a civil war.
“For months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war, and for the most part, news organizations like NBC have hesitated to characterize it as such,” Lauer said. “But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted, that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized as civil war.”
The White House continued to object to the description.
“What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy -- which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy,” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters on Air Force One on Monday as President Bush flew to Tallinn, Estonia.
The Times began referring to the violence as a “civil war” in an Oct. 7 article after several months of internal discussions.
“For some time now we believe it has been a fairly simple call: Inside one country you have different armed groups fighting with each other,” said Marjorie Miller, the newspaper’s foreign editor. “That is the definition of a civil war.”
The newspaper uses the term to characterize the violence in the center of Iraq and Baghdad, but editors noted that the fighting in other areas, such as the western province of Al Anbar, where Marines engage in regular combat with insurgents, was sometimes described differently. The newspaper has used “civil war” dozens of times, although Miller said it had not appeared as consistently as she would have liked.
“I had to keep up the conversation to make sure we called it what it is, a civil war,” she said.
The New York Times has decided to let correspondents describe the conflict as a civil war when they and their editors believe it is appropriate, Executive Editor Bill Keller said.
“It’s hard to argue that this war does not fit the generally accepted definition of civil war,” Keller said in a statement, but he added that the term does not capture the complexity of the violence.
“We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect,” he said.
CNN, which does not have an official policy regarding the term, has left the description of the violence in Iraq up to its correspondents, many of whom have used “civil war” in the last several months.
“Anyone who still remains in doubt about whether this is civil war or not is suffering from the luxury of distance,” CNN reporter Michael Ware said on the air Monday as he reported from Baghdad.
John Daniszewski, international editor at the Associated Press, said editors there had not decided whether to adopt the term.
“From a dictionary and academic point of view, many experts already consider Iraq to be immersed in a civil war,” he said in a statement. “However, there is a contrary school of thought that a civil war should be more narrowly defined as one cohesive force opposing another inside a country -- whereas in Iraq the fighting and violence often seem multifaceted, chaotic and anarchic.”
Political analysts said NBC’s public embrace of the term further complicated the administration’s efforts to maintain that the violence had not spun out of control.
“Words have power, and naming it a civil war does begin to shape people’s perception of what’s happening there,” said Thomas Hollihan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication who studies political rhetoric.
The midterm election results, widely seen as a repudiation of the administration and its policy in Iraq, may have emboldened news organizations to adopt a characterization the White House has rejected, he added.
“The media has, by and large, been very fearful of being perceived of being liberally biased,” Hollihan said. “Now that the election has occurred, there may be more license on the part of the media to say what the public has been feeling.”
NBC’s decision applies to newscasts, including the network’s flagship evening program, anchored by Brian Williams, as well as those on cable channel MSNBC. Spokeswoman Allison Gollust said executives decided to adopt the term after extensive conversations with military experts, historians and correspondents in Iraq.
“There was unanimous agreement that this was not an inappropriate label,” she said.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, one of those consulted in NBC’s discussions, told Lauer on Monday that he had considered the situation in Iraq a “low-grade conflict” civil war for the last 18 months.
“Now it’s on the verge of spinning out of control,” said McCaffrey, an NBC News analyst.
On Thursday, at least 215 people were killed by multiple bombings in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, triggering a series of deadly retaliatory attacks throughout the weekend. In a rare public comment about the fighting, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday that he believed Iraq was on the brink of civil war.
Although there is not a universally accepted definition of the term, many experts agree that such a war consists of fighting between organized groups pursuing a political agenda within the recognized borders of one country.
Administration officials have maintained that the current situation in Iraq does not meet that standard, contending that the fighting has been largely centered on Baghdad and that the various insurgent forces are not unified.
A Fox News spokeswoman said the cable network had no plans to change its terminology, while CBS News said its correspondents and producers chose how to describe the fighting in their reports.
Last week, ABC anchor Charles Gibson raised the issue on the air during a conversation with senior national security correspondent Jonathan Karl.
“Military officials say it could escalate into a full-scale civil war, but with 3,700 people dying in a month and 100,000 people leaving the country and the kind of sectarian violence we’re seeing, aren’t we in a full-scale civil war already?” Gibson asked during the Nov. 22 afternoon webcast of “World News.”
“That is certainly a debate that you can hear in the halls here at the Pentagon,” Karl said. “It’s a question of definitions.”
Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this report.