'Civil War' Debate in the Media

The following is a transcription of the December 2, 2006 edition of "FOX News Watch" that has been edited for clarity.

ERIC BURNS, HOST: President Bush met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, this week for what was billed in some of the press as a "high-stakes summit." But about what? The situation in Iraq? The new phase in the fighting in Iraq? Or the civil war in Iraq?

NBC made a decision earlier in the week to start calling the fighting a civil war. The Los Angeles Times made the same decision.

Neal, they are so far pretty much alone. Is it important what we call it? The Bush administration does not like it being called a civil war.

NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Yes. Well, I mean, it's important to the Bush administration.

I don't think that it's --"The Daily Show" this week had a long segment talking about different ways of using euphemisms for civil war and for the disaster in Iraq.

But I think the real issue here is that media has to accurately portray and report what it sees. Not accept spin. And here's the key, it seems to me: there's an article this week by Matea Gold in The Los Angeles Times, in which she says, "the White House has exerted pressure on the media not to use the term 'civil war,' journalists said, which led to newsroom caution over the issue."

Now there's a smoking gun, isn't there? That the media is allowing the administration to spin the terminology they use, because the administration doesn't want this to be called a civil war for fear that it will acknowledge a failure of its policy? And that's dangerous stuff right there.

JIM PINKERTON, NEWSDAY: And the Bush administration has totally failed with Neal.


PINKERTON: All their efforts have not succeeded!

Look, obviously this is a grudge match now between significant chunks of the media and the Bush administration and supporters of the war. Rome Hartman, whose the producer of The CBS Evening News, said, Listen, it's a political statement. If you call it a civil war, you're making a political statement.

There's lots of words -- they should probably be used interchangeably -- strike, sectarian conflict, violence.

GABLER: Mess...

PINKERTON: ...killing -- mass murder. Whatever you want to call it. But I think it's become a theological point now, as whether or not to call it a civil war.

CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Right. Well, there's a civil war in the media we've just kind of revealed here.

Look, words have meaning. Pro-life, pro-abortion, pro-choice. Insurgent, terrorist, occupier, liberator. Words convey meaning, and these leads to policies and politics. And that's why we're having a battle over words. I thought...

BURNS: And what is the political meaning to you, Cal, that the term "civil war" carries?

THOMAS: "Civil war" conveys the idea that there's nothing anybody can do. It is internecine -- locals fighting each other.

But look, as John Moody of this network -- vice president...

GABLER: Which is the perfect description of what's going on in Iraq.

THOMAS: Vice president -- it's nice to have you back, Neal -- nobody said anything outrageous since you were gone.

John Moody of this network I think is absolutely right when he's saying, it's not officially, I don't think, a civil war, he said, because there are outside forces -- notably from Iran and Syria -- who have sent insurgents in here.

JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: You know, I think that the Bush administration cares about this probably more than anybody else, because the fear is, if you don't portray it as a front in the War on Terror, or something we can win, or something -- you know, let's think about our soldiers continuing to die for someone else's fight -- which is what a civil war is. That's why they care.

And the media -- I agree with Neal -- have been cowed! And also the situation has worsened so much that - that I think the people on the ground - for example CNN's Michael Ware - said, People don't call it a civil war don't know what it's like to wake up and have 50 bodies in your backyard everyday.

BURNS: Jim, let me pick up on another phrase -- and I mentioned it earlier -- "high stakes" -- this was a "high-stakes" summit the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki...

Something curious I found about coverage on all-news networks is that some people were referring to it as a "high-stakes summit," while the pundits were coming on and saying they expected absolutely nothing to come out of this. -- Those two don't go hand in hand.

PINKERTON: I think the White House mishandled this summit conference.

BURNS: In terms of...

PINKERTON: Well, they they set it up as a big deal -- President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki were going to get together. And then, Maliki appears to have canceled the dinner with the White House. And the White House said, Well, maybe we didn't schedule it all in the first place. They tried that for about two minutes, and then they gave up on that line.

Listen, you shouldn't send the president to meet with somebody if you can't have a better handle on what's going to happen when you meet.

GABLER: Yes, I mean -- well, there's a disaster involved here as well. But, you know, in "Citizen Kane," they say, "If the headline is big enough, it makes the story big enough." Not always true. Here the headline was very big, all of the news anchors were sent there, but there's no story.

HALL: The White House was putting it out. I agree with Jim that was going to be a big-stakes summit.

The intriguing question is whether the administration leaked this memo to The New York Times, that as they were going there, said how little confidence they had in al-Maliki. Were they leaking it because they wanted to pressure him? Did it backfire? That's the really interesting story to me.

THOMAS: The height of pretension in all of this was when Matt Lauer got on the "Today" show, and like a head of state, announced that they were now going to call it a "civil war." What right does he have to do this? Who elected him to anything?

BURNS: Well, he was speaking for the network that had come up with the policy.

THOMAS: Yes. Well, clearly it wasn't his idea. It came down from the top.

BURNS: Yes, but executives don't get to be on the air. It's people like us. You know, the people who talk well and look good.

THOMAS: That's right. Speak for yourself.

GABLER: And by the way, nearly 70 percent of the American people call this a civil war.

THOMAS: Gee, I wonder why, with the media saying what they are.

GABLER: They just did it this week.

BURNS: Are you two done?

GABLER: No, we'll -- we'll do more later in the show!

HALL: I say this was internecine...

BURNS: Let me change the prompter copy. -- Past time now for a break!

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