Salivating Over The “T” Word

Others have kicked this around a bit already — the media’s, and our collective, obsession with the word “terrorism.” But it was still nagging at me late into the night and early this morning, and it wasn’t until an hour or two after President Obama’s remarks yesterday that I put my finger on exactly why.

Two reasons really. Starting with the first: Why were so many people in the media standing on pins and needles, wondering whether Obama would call what happened in Boston terrorism? Obviously the word is heavily charged, and carries great political and legal significance, and if reporters were really interested in how Obama himself viewed what happened — and thus how he might respond to it — it would be perfectly appropriate.

But thinking back over the past decade, I could only come up with one other instance in which anyone was quite so fixated on the president’s initial description of a violent tragedy in quite the same way, and it was the election year fake outrage over when exactly Obama described what happened in Benghazi as terrorism.

That was so recent, and such a big story in the campaign — leading up to the iconic “please proceed, governor” moment in the second debate — it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it instilled bad habits among the people who covered it. The media was listening for that word yesterday because they identified it as a potential source of a future, contrived political controversy; reporters were acting as opposition researchers for the people they cover, and identified a sin of omission. Like the inverse of when Obama said the private sector was “doing fine” and the press corps zeroed out everything else he said in the same press conference.

But what makes this all feel even more contrived is that a number of outlets made an editorial decision before Obama’s remarks to describe what happened as terrorism. Now of course I don’t think any outlet made that call in order to set up a story about whether Obama would follow suit.

But I do have a strong sense that most major media outlets typically distinguish terrifying violence from violent terrorism by examining motive. No political or ideological motive? Not terrorism. You might disagree with that distinction, but it’s been pretty consistent. It’s why everyone feels comfortable calling the Unabomber a terrorist, but not the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Then yesterday, the same outlets disregarded their own bright line. I think that’s probably because yesterday’s weapons were explosives, not guns. But that was an arbitrary editorial call on their part. And it’s quite a stretch to create a story out of the fact that the President of the United States declined to adhere to the editorial protocols of the cable nets.

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