If you read newspapers, listen to the radio or watch television, you know that the media has assigned Muqtada al-Sadr a peculiar job title: radical cleric. "Gunmen fired on supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday," reports the Associated Press wire service. National Public Radio routinely refers to "radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr." "The protesters were largely supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr," says CNN. Even Agence France-Press refers to him the same way: "Followers of a radical Shiite cleric marched in Baghdad."
I wonder: Does he answer his phone with a chipper "Muqtada al-Sadr, radical cleric!"? Does it say "radical cleric" on his business card?
It's a safe bet that neither al-Sadr nor his Iraqi supporters considers him particularly "radical." And, if you stop to think about it, there's nothing inherently extreme about wanting foreign troops to leave your country. Radical is a highly subjective word that gets thrown around without much reflection. What's more radical, invading another nation without a good excuse or trying to stop someone from doing so? But that's the problem: The media have become so accustomed to absorbing and regurgitating official government propaganda that they never stop to think.
A Google News search of the terms "Muqtada al-Sadr" and "radical cleric" brought up 616 news and opinion stories, the latter derived from the former. Despite the prime minister's obvious status as an American-appointed puppet, "Iyad Allawi" and "collaborationist" yielded zero results. The message is clear: al-Sadr, and by extension Iraqis who oppose the U.S. occupation, are marginal wackos. Those who support it are referred to by questionable legitimatizing honorifics-prime minister, in Allawi's case-because the U.S. government called a press conference to announce him as such.
Repetition is key to successful advertising. The American media uses repeated arbitrary labeling in its supposedly impartial coverage in a deliberate campaign to alter public perception. Americans were meant to feel less sympathy for a kidnapped Italian woman shot by U.S. soldiers manning a checkpoint in Iraq after the talking heads repeatedly referred to her as a "communist journalist." A Fox News reporter in the same story would never have been dubbed a "neofascist journalist." John McCain (R-AZ) might become president someday but "maverick Sen. John McCain" probably won't. Ralph Nader's name rarely appears in print without the unappealing word "gadfly" or a form of "crusading." Why not describe figures in the news using terms that aim for neutrality, like "Italian reporter" or "former Green Party candidate Ralph Nader"?
Labeling bias works to marginalize political outsiders while powerful elites receive their full honorifics. Howard Dean was antiwar firebrand Howard Dean but George W. Bush was never referred to as pro-war crusader George W. Bush. The press calls the founder of the Moral Majority "the Rev. Jerry Falwell," not "radical cleric Jerry Falwell." Even the word "cleric" implies foreignness to a xenophobic public; American religious leaders are the more familiar "ministers" rather than clerics. Instead of telling readers and viewers what to think with cheesy labels, why not let public figures' quotes and actions speak for themselves? Besides, well-known players like al-Sadr and Falwell don't require an introduction.
Loaded labels are commonly used to influence the public's feelings about groups of people as well as individuals. Under Ronald Reagan, the Afghan mujahedeen, who received CIA funding and weapons that they used to fight Soviet occupation forces, were called "freedom fighters." Iraqis who take up arms against U.S. occupation troops, on the other hand, are called "insurgents," a word that implies rebellion for its own sake. This was the same term used by the New York Times and other mainstream media to refer to anti-U.S. fighters in Vietnam during the 1960s. Only later, when the Vietnam War became unpopular, did American newspapers begin calling the former "insurgents" members of an infinitely more patriotic-sounding "resistance."
Editors and producers who value balance ought to establish a consistent policy-either negative smears or positive accolades for both sides. Anti-occupation forces should always be called insurgents, guerillas, etc., while pro-occupation troops are dubbed collaborators. Either that, or call them freedom fighters and government loyalists, respectively.
Perhaps the most absurd labeling sin is the media's inconsistent treatment of nations that decide to change their names. When the Khmer Rouge, who went on to kill an estimated 4.5 million people, renamed their country Kampuchea in 1975, the international media had so little trouble adapting to the new name for Cambodia that they continued using it well into the 1980s, even after Pol Pot had fled into the jungle. Notorious tyrant Mubutu Sese Seko easily convinced the press to start referring to the Congo as Zaire in 1971; his equally despotic successor got them to switch right back. When the SLORC military junta changed the former British colony of Burma to Myanmar in 1989, however, journalists followed the U.S. State Department's refusal to accept the new name. Even "liberal" outlets like NPR still call it Burma or "Myanmar, formerly Burma." We need a consistent rule here, too. Either countries get to call themselves whatever they want or they should be stuck with their current names for eternity.
What hits home hits hardest. I too have been victimized by the idiotic practice of repeat labeling. "Controversial cartoonist Ted Rall" garners no fewer than 58 hits on Google. Care to guess the results for "patriotic cartoonist Ted Rall"?