A New York Times article on the semantic debate surrounding President Bush's expected call for a troop increase in Iraq focused entirely on "escalation" as language favored by Democrats and other opponents of the forthcoming proposal. But the article ignored the roots of the term "surge" -- which offers potential political advantage to supporters of a troop increase and has been used by Bush, the Pentagon, and various advocates of sending more troops to Iraq.
In a January 10 article by reporter Jim Rutenberg on the debate over what to call the troop increase President Bush is expected to propose in a prime-time speech on the Iraq war, The New York Times focused entirely on "escalation" as language favored by Democrats and other opponents of the forthcoming plan -- while ignoring the roots of the term "surge," which has been used by Bush, the Pentagon, and various advocates of sending more troops to Iraq. Indeed, while the Times asserted that Democrats introduced "escalation" to cast the troop increase "in a negative light," the article made no mention of the potential political advantage to supporters of a troop increase if it is labeled a "surge," which as many in the media -- including Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley -- have pointed out, suggests a short-term increase, as opposed to an "escalation." In fact, the White House has given no indication that Bush will call for a temporary increase.
The Times' treatment of this semantic debate echoes CNN's handling of the issue. As Media Matters for America has noted, CNN reporters have repeatedly suggested that "surge" is a neutral, accurate description of the impending proposal to increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq, while "escalation" represents Democratic spin. But as CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider noted on the January 5 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, the words "surge" and "escalation" imply different timeframes: " '[S]urge' sounds temporary. ... 'Escalation' sounds long-term." Therefore, by accepting "surge" as an appropriate label for the troop increase, the Times and CNN have suggested that Bush's proposal will be short-term, despite no indication that this is the case.
Blankley made a similar point in his January 10 column, calling the term "surge" "deceptive," while referring to the word "escalation" as "honest":
The expected troop increase in Iraq is not a surge -- a surge being a transient, sudden rise. There is no plausible military theory which would rely on a brief increase in troop strength followed by the immediate withdrawal of such troops from Iraq.
The troops would surely be in theatre for an indefinite period. The words escalation, reinforcements or higher sustained troop levels would all be honest. The word "surge" is deceptive.
And, during an interview with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) on the January 10 edition of MSNBC Live, guest anchor and NBC News White House correspondent David Gregory described the word "surge" as a "misnomer":
GREGORY: I'm joined by Jack Reed, a Democrat of Rhode Island on the Armed Services Committee. Senator, a "surge" is a misnomer here, isn't it? It's gonna take months for deployment of 20,000 troops.
REED: It will take months, and that's because of limitations of our overall Army and Marine Corps forces.
The January 10 Times article -- from the headline down -- focused entirely on Democrats' efforts to portray the potential troop increase "in a negative light":
This week has ushered in a new political battle over the language of the war: "Surge," meet "escalation."
The Democrats introduced the latter word to portray President Bush's expected proposal for a troop increase in Iraq in a negative light.
"An escalation, whether it is called a surge or any other name, is still an escalation, and I believe it will be an immense new mistake," Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said Tuesday in a speech critiquing Mr. Bush's as-yet-unannounced Iraq plan.
Should the significance of the word be lost on those too young to remember its loaded usage during the Vietnam War, Senator Kennedy added: "The Department of Defense kept assuring us that each new escalation in Vietnam would be the last. Instead, each one led only to the next."
On Sunday, the new House speaker, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, used "escalate" or "escalation" six times during an interview on the CBS News program "Face the Nation."
The article went on to quote White House press secretary Tony Snow suggesting at a January 9 press briefing that the Democrats' preferred term "allows them to make a political point." The Times concluded the article by reporting Snow's statement that the term "surge" would not be appearing in Bush's January 10 speech:
Asked at his regular briefing on Tuesday about the Democrats' use of the "E" word, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, initially said, "I think a lot of times people are going to try to find a one-word characterization that allows them to make a political point without perhaps diving into the details."
But, pressed further by a reporter to address the new "Democratic Party language," Mr. Snow said, "Well, ask the guys who do their focus groups."
Mr. Snow last night said that the president would not be using the word "surge" in his speech, adding that it implied what he called a "rush hour" approach to a serious policy.
But while the Times article pegged "escalation" as a Democratic term and addressed the purported political motivations behind this language, it failed to explore the roots of the word "surge" or why critics believe the term is misleading. The Times even allowed Snow to distance the White House from the term, when it was the Bush administration and supporters of a troop increase who apparently first described the proposal as a "surge."
Indeed, the Times itself was the first major print outlet to use the term in conjunction with the current possible troop increase. The paper reported on November 21, 2006, that Pentagon officials had labeled this potential strategy as the "surge option":
Pentagon officials conducting a review of Iraq strategy are considering a substantial but temporary increase in American troop levels and the addition of several thousand more trainers to work with Iraqi forces, a senior Defense Department official said Monday.
The idea, dubbed the "surge option" by some officials, would involve increasing American forces by 20,000 troops or more for several months in the hope of improving security, especially in Baghdad. That would mark a sharp rise over the current baseline of 144,000 troops.
On December 14, in an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) report, AEI resident scholar Frederick Kagan, a strong supporter of a troop increase, also used the term:
We must send more American combat forces into Iraq and especially into Baghdad to support this operation. A surge of seven Army brigades and Marine regiments to support clear-and-hold operations starting in the spring of 2007 is necessary, possible, and will be sufficient.
Further, at a December 20 press conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the term when asked by a reporter to describe his strategy discussions with U.S. commanders in Iraq. He said, "We've discussed the possibility of a surge and the potential for what it might accomplish." And in a December 20 press conference, Bush himself referred to the proposal as a "surge." When asked about reports that the White House was considering a "surge in troop levels," he responded, "Let me wait and gather all the recommendations from Bob Gates, from our military, from diplomats on the ground; I'm interested in the Iraqis' point of view; and then I'll report back to you as to whether or not I support a surge or not."
By contrast with The New York Times, January 10 articles in the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post explained how "surge" entered the debate and why it might be beneficial to those supporting a troop increase.
From the Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Storm rises over 'surge' ":
What infuriates critics of the war, including many liberal Democrats, is that they see "surge" as a manipulative and deceptive word. It implies a relatively short-term increase in the U.S. military commitment, they say, when the White House intends to keep the additional troops in Iraq much longer, perhaps for several years.
Even worse, critics say, the news media have uncritically accepted the word and thus contributed to deceiving the public.
From the Post article:
The very vagueness of "surge" might make it the politically perfect word for what is likely to be a controversial policy. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the new House speaker, framed her apparent opposition to sending more troops to Iraq by using a more freighted substitute: "escalation."
"It just seems to be a term that cropped up that seemed useful," says Lewis Sorley, a retired Army officer and prominent military historian.
Sorley notes that the word is politically savvy because "surge" seems to suggest a sharp but passing event. "If you're trying to engender support from those who have doubts about the war, it's a useful word," he says. "Because if this is a temporary event, it might be more palatable."
It's not clear who coined the word "surge" to describe troop increases. But it gained quick currency -- that is, it surged -- in November. Its first apparent journalistic use in reference to Iraq was in the New York Times on Nov. 21. A day after The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon was considering whether to deploy more troops, the Times said unnamed Pentagon officials had dubbed this "the surge option."
The Post went on to address the mainstream media's handling of the term:
Thereafter, variations of the phrase "surge option" appeared in newspaper stories and TV reports, then was quickly shorthanded to "surge." (The brevity of the word even might account for its popularity in headlines -- taking up far less space than more neutral phrases, such as "troop increase.")
And that raises a question: Should the news media adopt the terminology favored by policymakers when those words can be construed as politically loaded? That question has haunted journalists for decades, stretching back to debates over abortion ("pro-choice" or "pro-life"), the Mideast ("terrorists" or "militants") and, of course, Iraq itself ("sectarian conflict" or "civil war").
"Surge" falls into "the Orwellian zone between language and politics," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which studies and evaluates the media. "The president and his advisers would be remiss if they didn't come up with a term suited to their new policy. But journalists would be equally remiss if they just thoughtlessly repeated the term without pondering the policy and its implications."