The War of Words

Media watchdogs warn journalists not to take the bait with Bush's 'surge'

| January 18, 2007


The latest political jargon to come parachuting out of the Bush administration and onto the front pages of newspapers around the country is the word 'surge.' The term has the advantage of seeming unavoidable, forceful, and quick -- like a power surge or a storm surge. Yet it's vague and fresh enough to avoid conjuring past military rhetoric, such as the doomed 'escalation' of the Vietnam War.

The phrase ''surge option'' first appeared in newsprint in November, when the New YorkTimes (registration required) quoted anonymous Pentagon officials on Bush's plans to send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq. Since then, 'surge' has slipped comfortably into media coverage, sometimes shedding the quotes that put it squarely in the administration's mouth.

That's a troubling development, say media watchers. In a political culture where the slightest difference in terms can shift meaning and determine support, the distinction between Bush's 'surge' and the Democrat-favored 'escalation' is an important one. And it's a distinction that even the so-called bastion of liberal media stands accused of fumbling. The watchdog group Media Matters recently chided the New York Times for a piece citing the Democrats' motives for using 'escalation' -- i.e., presenting the increase in troops in a 'negative light' -- but failing to similarly investigate the spin behind 'surge.'

Of course, this isn't a problem unique to the New York Times. Nor is it the first time the media have found themselves caught in the crossfire of Bush's rhetoric. As Gal Beckerman reminds readers (many of them journalists) in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily, the spin-infused 'surge' is the latest lingo to join an obfuscating vocabulary that includes 'the war on terror.'



It is imperative, Beckerman argues, that journalists avoid the tendency to abridge the tricky concepts wrapped up in these phrases; their responsibility is to sift through the partisan rhetoric. 'The press is the arbiter of our public discourse, and as such must take care to disentangle spin from substance whenever it encounters it -- as a service to the readers and viewers who dip into and out of this discourse,' he writes. 'The use of quotation marks around words and phrases like 'surge' and 'war on terror' is the minimum journalists can do to alert the public that what you see is rarely what you get.'

Go there >> Parsing the 'Surge'