In a column published on December 14, Clark Hoyt, The New York Times' current Public Editor, or reader representative, addressed the paper's choice of terminology for people who target civilians with the intent of killing them.
What brought Mr. Hoyt to address the issue was the Times' assiduous avoidance of the word "terrorist" for the perpetrators of what has come to be known as the Mumbai Massacre -- the late November Islamist attacks on hotels, a hospital, a railway station, a restaurant and a Jewish center in India's largest city that left 173 dead and more than 300 injured. The attackers were called "militants," "gunmen," "attackers" and "assailants" in the paper of record's reports but never "terrorists." Some readers were offended; thus the public editor's investigation and report.
He explained that "in the newsroom and at overseas bureaus, especially Jerusalem, there has been a lot of soul-searching about the terminology of terrorism." The upshot of the introspection, he continued, "to the dismay of supporters of Israel -- and sometimes of the other side, denouncing Israeli military actions" is that "The Times is sparing in its use of ‘terrorist' when reporting on that complex struggle." (One wonders if, examples of the military actions denounced by the "other side" include the recent killing of three Palestinians by Israeli forces; the three were planting explosives in northern Gaza along a border fence and, when accosted, threw hand grenades at the Israeli soldiers, who then returned fire – and the three, none too soon, to their Maker.)
Later in his essay, Mr. Hoyt takes up the issue of Hamas, the Sunni group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and which has launched scores of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians (targeting, among other things, buses, hotels, supermarkets and restaurants) and has fired hundreds of missiles at Israeli cities and town. The group that exults in the murder and maiming of innocent men, women and children, that trains its young to feel the same way, that denies the Holocaust and expresses confidence that, as one of its leaders put it in a Hamas newspaper, "the Holocaust is still to come upon the Jews." Mr. Hoyt explains that The Times chooses to not label Hamas a terrorist organization "though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel."
Media that are too weak-kneed to call evil what it is are, in their own way, complicit in the same.
The reason? Because it "was elected to govern Gaza" and "provides social services and operates charities, hospitals and clinics." He quotes deputy news editor Phil Corbett, who said, "You get to the question: Somebody works in a Hamas clinic -- is that person a terrorist? We don't want to go there." Mr. Hoyt concurs: "I think that is right."
Well, Mr. Corbett and Mr. Hoyt may prefer not to go there, but as journalists they really should realize their responsibility to make the trip. The "there," of course, is a different, and straightforward question: Does all an organization that routinely attacks innocents have to do to achieve respectability is garner the support of a population and open health clinics?
I've always been a foolhardy sort, so let me be the brave soul – there may even be others, if not in The Times' newsroom – who is perfectly willing to go there: The answer is No. A terrorist group is a terrorist group, even if it runs a hospital, wins elections, operates a soup kitchen, recycles its plastics and cares for abandoned kittens.
And all who choose to support such a group or, by working under its auspices, to empower it are members of a terrorist group and, thereby, accessories to terrorism.
What's more, media that are too weak-kneed to call evil what it is are, in their own way, complicit in the same.