Fightin' Words

Last week editors at the Star Tribune had an opportunity to explore an important but elusive journalistic principle known as objectivity. So what did they do? Why, they did what they almost always do when someone


dares to question the Newspaper of the Twin Cities: They closed ranks and claimed a higher moral ground.

It was as predictable as it was disappointing.

On Tuesday, April 2, a grassroots group called Minnesotans Against Terrorism took out a full-page ad in the Strib objecting to the newspaper's reluctance to label Palestinian suicide bombers as "terrorists" and encouraging readers to write or e-mail editor Tim McGuire. The ad listed the names of 359 prominent Minnesotans who signed on in support of the declaration (and in many cases chipped in to pay its $16,500 cost), including U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, Gov. Jesse Ventura, and former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.

In a news story published the next day, Star Tribune staff writer Bob von Sternberg quoted a "statement" from managing editor Pam Fine explaining that the paper permits the use of the word terrorist but prefers specific terms such as suicide bombers. "This helps us avoid labels that might suggest we're taking sides," she said.

By the end of last week, the Strib had received more than 500 responses--"much of it supportive," according to McGuire. Given the cost of the ad, and its prominent display, this could be viewed as a disappointment; controversial editorial cartoons have kicked up a higher volume of noise. Still, the Strib did print the ad, they published a story about the flap, and they're running a sampling of opinion on the letters page. "As you know, that's what it's all about for me--having a healthy debate," Tim McGuire told me when we spoke about the issue on Thursday.

Then on Friday, Jim Boyd, deputy editor of the editorial pages, chimed in with a defensive, condescending diatribe aimed at "some small number of people in the Minnesota Jewish community" who were attacking the Star Tribune's "integrity," "intelligence," and "professionalism." Boyd concluded--without any evidence, by the way--that the folks who signed on to the ad had no knowledge of the facts and were allowing themselves to be "used in this blatant bullying effort." "The politicians were craven, every one of them," he sniffed.

So much for healthy debate.

Boyd went out of his way in the first few paragraphs of his screed to "make it clear" that the news and editorial departments at the Strib are completely separate, and he wasn't speaking for the newspaper or the newsroom. So aside from Fine's statement, there has been no official response from the newspaper. Even ombudsman Lou Gelfand took a pass. (Gelfand did write about the paper's policy back in February, when two readers questioned it.) When I asked McGuire whether the Strib would address the subject further, he said he thought "the paper had explained themselves." Since then, all there's been is Boyd.

That's a shame. At the heart of the Strib's policy is a healthy respect for the power of language and a desire to strive for objectivity while reporting about a complex and deadly part of the world.

"The key thing that we're dealing with is language. For journalists, the clarity of that language can't be overemphasized," observes Aly Colón, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalistic think tank. "And that is at the crux of what the Star Tribune is trying to come to terms with."

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz is a tad less diplomatic: "I think it is beyond debate that people who strap bombs to their chests and blow themselves up in crowded places are committing an act of terror and are therefore terrorists."

Robin Brown, professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota: "This is simplifying it a bit, but if we call the Palestinian suicide bombers terrorists, and we have a war on terrorism, then aren't we de facto declaring war?"

In the wake of 9/11, the terms terrorist and terrorism have become more explosive than they were before. President Bush equates all forms of terrorism with "evil"--another word tossed around to justify broad foreign policy initiatives. And the day after Minnesotans Against Terrorism ran its ad, the Associated Press reported that "the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference drafted a declaration that rejected any link between terrorism and the Palestinian struggle." At times like this, it's heartening to see a news organization choose its words carefully. What's disheartening is to see the same organization circle the wagons when faced with the specter of robust discourse.

"I believe they're trying to be professional," allows Gil Mann, a local writer and volunteer for Minnesotans Against Terrorism. "But they've dug their feet in. They know best, it's their paper, and they're the only game in town."

How to deploy the term terrorist is a subject that requires far more space than this column allows. The Star Tribune's collective arrogance, however, is a matter of record.


All the Rage appears every other week. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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