WASHINGTON: When reporters from non-American news outlets write about the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” they typically place the words in quotation marks to indicate a distance from the White House’s political rhetoric. But most mainstream media in the US use the phrase as generically as the words World War II or the Vietnam War.
Behind those missing little bits of punctuation lies the story of how the top newspapers in the United States helped obfuscate the real nature of events post-9/11. A study, titled “The ‘Good’ Muslims: US Newspaper Coverage of Pakistan,” found patterns of coverage in major US newspapers in the year following September 11, 2001, and five years later in 2006 that may still contribute to public confusion over the perception of the global terrorist risk.
“The ‘Good’ Muslims” investigated the reporting of that “other” major theater in the “War on Terror” – Pakistan and Afghanistan – and discovered that American journalists too often failed to challenge the president’s representation of the dimensions and immediacy of the terrorist threat. The language that the White House chose to tell its story was the default way the events were described. And the papers’ use of American officials as their key sources further reinforced the Bush administration’s politicized packaging of events.
The study, released by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, analyzed news coverage by 13 major US newspapers over two time periods: September 11, 2001, to December 31, 2002, and January 1, 2006, to January 15, 2007.
In both periods, news coverage emphasized Pakistan’s connection to key American concerns, viewing it, alternatively, as a staunch Muslim ally (the government, if not the people), as a frontline in the “War on Terror,” as a critical player in nuclear politics, as a key conduit in the narcotics trade, as a major recipient of American aid. A February 2006 editorial in the Boston Globe summed up the view: “The strategic importance of Pakistan is obvious, but it is not exactly a blessing on the land…. President Pervez Musharraf said the country lies at the nexus of five world concerns: terrorism, democracy, human rights, narcotics, and nuclear nonproliferation. He might have added the widening gap between Islam and the West.”1
The consequence of such reports? Pakistan has received a fair amount of attention in the US press. And audiences are taught to be afraid. The study found that newspapers, in breaking stories, as well as in editorials and op-eds, too readily conflated different kinds of terrorism. Articles did not adequately distinguish between state terrorism, such as that formerly practiced by the Taliban, and terrorism by distinctive terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. In breaking stories, reporters too often used a range of terms interchangeably in a single article, among them “terrorist,” “militant” and “extremist,” disregarding real differences in tactics, motives, history, politics and culture among the groups.
Following the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, for example, journalists raised the specter of “terrorists” gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Papers drew connections between Al Qaeda and other groups – even without explicit reasons – and linked in fears of Al Qaeda or some unnamed “terrorists” gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, as in this Philadelphia Inquirer editorial:
“In another nightmare scenario, an unstable Pakistan could result in the moderate president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, being replaced by Islamic extremists, who would then have nuclear weapons. At that point, forget about eliminating al-Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”2
Seemingly posing almost as great a risk as nuclear weapons, according to a plethora of stories, were the Pakistani madrassas. Madrassas, as the Washington Post noted in 2002, were “a breeding ground for terrorist organizations.”3 Articles observed that Pakistan has thousands of madrassas – implying that the country is virtually awash with training camps for terrorists masquerading as schools for boys. Journalists repeatedly profiled the Haqqani madrassa, for example, observing that it is the alma mater of 90 percent of the former Afghan Taliban leadership.
Few efforts were made to define the term “madrassas” for the American audience. As the controversy over US Senator Barack Obama’s childhood schooling earlier this year pointed up, the use of the word “madrassa” almost always carries a loaded political meaning. The New York Times in fact ran a correction to its January 24, 2007, story covering the Obama controversy:
“ [the] report that said Senator Barack Obama had attended an Islamic school or madrassa in Indonesia as a child referred imprecisely to madrassas. While some teach a radical version of Islam, most historically have not.”4
When articles mentioned “madrassas,” readers were led to infer that all schools so-named are anti-American, anti-Western, pro-terrorist centers having less to do with teaching basic literacy and more to do with political indoctrination.
Indeed, intellectuals as diverse as Thomas Friedman and Newt Gingrich spoke harshly about the role the Islamic schools play in advocating hatred. Friedman wrote in his New York Times column: “50 years of failed democracy, military coups and imposed religiosity have produced 30,000 madrassahs – Islamic schools, which have replaced a collapsed public school system and churn out Pakistani youth who know only the Koran and hostility toward non-Muslims.”5 And former Speaker of the House Gingrich, interviewed for an article in the New York Times, said:
“What Sept. 11 has made clear is that… some people really hate us…. Reactionary Islam, as distinct from modern Islam, will always oppose us because our very existence threatens its values. American women who drive, vote, wear modern clothing and work, all without a male relative watching them, are a threat to the core tenets of reactionary Islam, which is prepared to impose its values by violence. The Wahhabi sect has become a worldwide movement of radical Islam perpetuated by madrassas that indoctrinate young males into this fanatical belief system, of which Al Qaeda is merely a symptom. Its goal is to create a world incompatible with our survival.”6
Last December, the British Foreign Office told cabinet ministers, British diplomats and other official spokespeople to entirely stop using the phrase the “War on Terror.” The government wanted to “avoid reinforcing and giving succor to the terrorists’ narrative by using language that, taken out of context, could be counter-productive.” The London newspaper, The Observer, noted that the term, which had been “coined by the White House in the week following the 9/11 attacks,” was still “liberally” used by President Bush. “A spokesman for the US State Department yesterday told The Observer that there was no question of dropping the term. ‘It’s the President’s phrase, and that’s good enough for us,’ she said.”7
And that is perhaps the key problem for the US media discovered by this study – a president’s characterizations of events should not be “good enough.” Media must ask harder questions about the “War on Terror.” They shouldn’t take the president’s word for how to characterize and how to understand the diverse threats the world has faced since September 11. They shouldn’t have taken the president’s word back in 2001, and with the lesson of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction behind them, they certainly shouldn’t today. But too often, even the best American newspapers still do.
1 Renee Loth, "Musharrah on a Tightrope," The Boston Globe, Feb. 16, 2006, p. A16.
2 "Unconventional Fears," Philadelphia Inquirer, June 4, 2002. See also the editorial "Ease the Tensions," Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 27, 2001. Following President Bush's speech to the United Nations and his meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, newspapers also took up Bush's admonition. As The Dallas Morning News wrote: "The president further reminded delegates of al-Qaida's quest to obtain chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. 'These same terrorists are searching for weapons of mass destruction, the tools to turn their hatred into holocaust,' Bush said." David Jackson, "U.S. Will Provide More than $1 Billion in Aid to Pakistan, Bush Says," The Dallas Morning News, Nov. 11, 2001.
3 Paul Blustein, "In Pakistan's Squalor, Cradles of Terrorism," The Washington Post, March 14, 2002, p. A1.
4 Correction, The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2007, p. A2.
5 Thomas L. Friedman, "Where Freedom Reigns," The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2002, p. A23.
6 Newt Gingrich, "Reflections on an America Transformed," The New York Times, Sept. 8, 2002, Section 4; p. 15
7 Jason Burke, "Britain Stops Talk of 'War on Terror,'" The Observer, Dec. 10, 2006.