Last July, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt wrote in a column titled “Seeing Al Qaeda Around Every Corner”:
While a president running out of time and policy options may want to talk about a single enemy that Americans hate and fear in the hope of uniting the country behind him, journalists have the obligation to ask tough questions about the accuracy of his statements.
Hoyt was concerned that in reporting on the violence in Iraq, his newspaper was increasingly using the administration’s politically motivated shorthand. The Times, Hoyt wrote, “has slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda’s role in Iraq — and sometimes citing the group itself without attribution.”
And in using the language of the administration, the newspaper has also failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn’t even exist until after the American invasion.
The Times has since reformed. But others haven’t.
One of the worst offenders, incredibly, is the Baghdad bureau of Reuters, probably the most trusted news organisation in the world.
In today’s story about Mosul, for example, Al-Qaeda is mentioned nine times.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, leading an offensive against al Qaeda in the north, offered cash and freedom from prosecution on Friday to fighters who give up their weapons within 10 days.
Maliki made the amnesty offer in the northern city of Mosul, where he has been supervising a U.S.-backed campaign aimed at delivering a fatal blow to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in the city and surrounding Nineveh province.
Many al Qaeda gunmen have regrouped in Nineveh after being pushed out of Baghdad and other areas. The U.S. military says Mosul is al Qaeda’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
And so on.
In reality, of course, no one knows who the gunmen are. They probably include foreign jihadists, local Baathists, Sunni nationalists, as well as gangsters and disaffected refugees. AQI is but one of dozens of insurgent groups, and probably no longer even the most dangerous. In West Mosul, for example, you can pay a guy 10 bucks and he’ll throw an IED in a plastic bag in the middle of the road. Does that make him al-Qaeda?
I’m sure the Reuters crew, excellent journalists all, is well aware of this. So why the sloppy jargon? I wish I knew. But the next time the Baghdad press corps gathers in the CPIC parking garage for an MNF-I news conference, I hope it goes more like this:
Spokesperson: We have information that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack.
Reporter: You mean Al-Qaeda as in ‘Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda’?
Spokesperson: I mean Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Reporter: How do you know it was Al-Qaeda in Iraq?
Spokesperson: Well, it has all the hallmarks of…
Reporter: How do you know it wasn’t IAI?
Reporter: Mujahidin Army?
Reporter: Ansar al-Sunna? Shield of Islam Brigade?