NBC's "Today Show" host Matt Lauer yesterday told millions of American television viewers, many sitting at their breakfast tables, that the network would buck the White House and from now on describe the Iraq war as a "civil war."
The new policy, which NBC News said would cover all its news shows, could become a benchmark in public opinion about the war, according to media specialists.
Some media analysts compared it to CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite's declaration in 1968 that the United States was losing the Vietnam War -- a pronouncement now considered a turning point in public opinion -- and Ted Koppel's ABC updates on the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980 that infuriated Jimmy Carter's White House.
"How you frame a problem frames what the public thinks is the right thing to do," said James Steinberg , dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. "If Iraq is a democracy struggling against insurgents and you describe it that way, people might still support you. If it is a civil war, it is indisputably the case that Americans will say, 'What are we doing in the middle of a civil war?' "
Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser under President Clinton, added: "The more they hear 'civil war,' the harder it is going to be to support a strategy that keeps a lot of American troops there in large numbers."
A few other media outlets with reporters in Baghdad have slowly begun to refer to the conflict as a civil war and still more said yesterday they were debating the issue after the NBC announcement. Lauer, whose announcement was termed "a bombshell" by the industry magazine Editor & Publisher, explained that NBC did not come to the decision lightly.
" For months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war. And for the most part, news organizations, like NBC, have hesitated to characterize it as such," Lauer said. "But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided the change in terminology is warranted -- that the situation in Iraq, with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, can now be characterized as civil war.
"We didn't just wake up on a Monday morning and say, 'Let's call this a civil war,' " Lauer added.
The White House, for its part, continued to maintain that the expanding cycle of sectarian warfare in Iraq -- on full and painful display over the weekend with the deadliest round of revenge killings between Iraq's Shi'ite majority and Sunni minority -- does not yet amount to a civil war.
"While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither Prime Minister [Nouri] Maliki nor we believe that Iraq is in a civil war," the White House said in a statement. It noted that "the violence is largely centered around Baghdad, and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi security forces is at the top of the agenda when President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki meet later this week in Jordan."
However, the government's position is increasingly being called into question. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, asked by reporters yesterday whether Iraq was a civil war, remarked: "We are almost there." And several leading military analysts have begun using the term in recent weeks.
The Los Angeles Times, dropping the usual qualifiers, flatly referred to the conflict as a civil war yesterday. So, in published stories, have The Christian Science Monitor and McClatchy newspapers.
"We began using it when that was clear that was going on, which was a number of months ago," said John Walcott , Washington bureau chief for the McClatchy chain. "When the Shi'a population is at war with the Sunni population and members of the Interior Ministry kidnap people from the Education Ministry, that sounds like a civil war."
Some other news organizations said that they, too, will permit the use of the term "civil war" where appropriate, though they prefer not to have a blanket policy.
"We talk about it every day," said Sandy Genelius , a CBS News spokeswoman. "But there is no edict here. Each producer and correspondent tries to put on the air what seems accurate and appropriate in the context of each story."
Bill Keller , executive editor of The New York Times, said in a statement yesterday that "after consulting with our reporters in the field and the editors who directly oversee this coverage," the paper has decided that the term "civil war" is now appropriate.
Yet Keller cautioned against using the description too much. "We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect," he said.
Before deciding its policy on the term, the Globe is weighing the judgments of the news organizations that have reporters regularly in Iraq.
Observers said the media's willingness to reject the White House's depiction of events was reminiscent of 1968, when Cronkite filmed a Vietnam documentary and offered his belief that the United States was losing the war.
"To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion," Cronkite said at the time. "The only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could."
President Johnson, after hearing Cronkite's broadcast, reportedly remarked, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."
"There is a clear parallel," Edward C. Pease , a journalism professor at the University of Utah, said of yesterday's NBC broadcast during a morning time-slot that is now far more popular than the evening news. "The way the media frames things helps lead the public perception."
Globe correspondent Bryan McGonigle contributed to this report.
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