NYT declares civil war in Iraq, sort of

Bill Keller descends from the mountaintop, tablets in hand, and lo, it is civil war:

“After consulting with our reporters in the field and the editors who
directly oversee this coverage, we have agreed that Times correspondents may describe the conflict in Iraq as a civil war when they and their editors believe it is appropriate,” Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, revealed in a statement…

“We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect. The main shortcoming of “civil war” is that, like other labels, it fails to capture the complexity of what is happening on the ground…”

Why has our secular priesthood suddenly taken to revising the catechism? Spruiell thinks he knows:

It has nothing to do with the ongoing violence in Iraq, and everything to do with the fact that these media organizations, which are struggling to maintain their relevance in a rapidly changing industry, feel the need to assert themselves and remind the public of their importance.

That explains why but it doesn’t explain why now. Back to E&P:

On his MSNBC “Hardball” show on Monday night, host Chris Matthews asked the Post’s Pultizer Prize winning reporter Dana Priest about this issue. Priest replied: “Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy…

“Words have power, and naming it a civil war does begin to shape people’s perception of what’s happening there,” Thomas Hollihan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication who studies political rhetoric, told the Los Angeles Times. The midterm election results may have emboldened news outlets 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.”

He means “to say what they’ve been feeling” but he doesn’t want to put it that way lest he admit their bias. So he’s left to argue that yes, of course media rhetoric shapes public opinion — except for right now, when it’s public opinion that’s shaping the rhetoric. Blame the public! Dana Priest, however, is more forthright. Between the Democrats’ victory and the imminent delivery of the Baker Commission report, the amount of pressure on Bush to either pull out or make a deal with Iran is at its absolute zenith. There’s not much the media can do to ratchet it up further except, as Hollihan suggests, to introduce into the rhetoric a term which Priest aptly describes as tantamount to U.S. failure. They’ve done their part for the anti-war effort.

Incidentally, how’s Bush bearing up under all that pressure? Not so well.