NEW YORK — NBC News became one of the first major news organizations to define the killing in Iraq as a “civil war” on Monday, defying the Bush Administration and breaking with other networks wary of using the label.
NBC News’ “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer explained the net’s decision in the first segment of the ayem show on Monday morning.
“As you know, for months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into a civil war, and for the most part, news organizations like NBC News have hesitated to characterize it as such,” Lauer said. “But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted, that the political agendas can now be characterized as civil war.”
Lauer added that the decision “took careful deliberation” and that the network “consulted with a lot of people,” including retired General Barry McCaffrey, a paid NBC News military analyst and critic of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“I’ve been calling it a civil war, a low-grade conflict, for 18 months,” McCaffrey said. “Now it’s on the verge of spinning out of control.”
The decision marks a turning point in the media coverage of Iraq which, while increasingly critical, has remained deferential to the administration by not referring to the violence as a “civil war.”
White House spokesman Tony Snow has argued that “civil war” does not define conditions in Iraq. Responding to NBC, a spokesman for the National Security Council said the situation was serious but that neither President Bush nor Iraqi President Nuri Al-Maliki believes it is a civil war.
NBC’s call set up what might have been some briefing room fireworks on Monday, but no briefing was scheduled due to the president’s trip to the NATO summit in Latvia.
Sources at NBC News said the staff is taking the dictum as a matter of policy that applies to all NBC networks, including MSNBC, which used the term all day Monday in its coverage of Iraq.
MSNBC morning host Don Imus blasted the NBC execs who made the decision as “nitwits” and accused the net of trying to manufacture a “Walter Cronkite moment” on par with the anchor calling Vietnam “unwinnable.”
NBC News execs were in Pennsylvania Monday attending a funeral, but spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the net had “reached out to a variety of experts, including military experts, historians and people on the ground in Iraq, and they unanimously agreed it was an appropriate label.”
In a story published on Sunday, the New York Times consulted political scientists on whether conditions in Iraq met the criteria for a civil war, and several said such conditions had been met many months ago.
But it became clear Monday that other news orgs aren’t feeling pressure to rush to adopt the label.
“We haven’t labeled it a civil war,” Washington Post correspondent Dana Priest said on “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” “We try to avoid the labels when the elected government itself does not call its own situation a civil war.”
The question of whether a civil war exists in Iraq has been open for debate for a long time at the networks, but outside of NBC News, none consulted by Daily Variety said they intended to make policy on the matter.
“Aren’t we in a full-scale civil war already?” ABC’s Charles Gibson asked national security correspondent Jonathan Karl last week.
“That is a conversation we’ve been having on the air and off the air for months,” ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. “It’s a conversation we’re having behind the scenes, and we’ll continue to have it.”
CNN’s Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware said, “Anyone who still remains in doubt about whether this is civil war or not is suffering from the luxury of distance.”
Fox News Channel, which made news by coining the term “homicide bomber” to refer to what most networks call “suicide bombers,” said it doesn’t intend to change its usage.
NBC News’ decision surprised analysts, in part because Lauer delivered it rather than Brian Williams on the “Nightly News” or Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.”
“That would have made more news,” news analyst Andrew Tyndall said. “People look to those shows for newsmaking events.”