Bill Keller Follows NBC's Lead: Reporters Can Call Iraq Conflict "Civil War"

Good news for Baghdad-based reporter Edward Wong: Bill Keller declares Times reporters can now call the conflict in Iraq a "civil war."

This morning, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller announced the paper will follow NBC's lead and allow its reporters to refer to the conflict in Iraq as a "civil war."

Keller said in a statement to Editor & Publisher:

"After consulting with our reporters in the field and the editors who directly oversee this coverage, we have agreed that Times correspondents may describe the conflict in Iraq as a civil war when they and their editors believe it is appropriate. It's hard to argue that this war does not fit the generally accepted definition of civil war. We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect. The main shortcoming of 'civil war' is that, like other labels, it fails to capture the complexity of what is happening on the ground. The war in Iraq is, in addition to being a civil war, an occupation, a Baathist insurgency, a sectarian conflict, a front in a war against terrorists, a scene of criminal gangsterism and a cycle of vengeance. We believe 'civil war' should not become reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated."

The Washington Post has so far declined to follow suit.

As Times Watch has documented, at least one of the Times Baghdad-based correspondents, Edward Wong, has been eager to call the Iraq morass a "civil war" for years.

After nearly two years of finding Iraq on the brink of "civil war" (starting with a December 2004 piece headlined "Mayhem in Iraq Is Starting to Look Like a Civil War") Wong's day has finally arrived.

Either anticipating or fostering the recent change at NBC and the Times was Wong's Sunday "news analysis," "A Matter of Definition: What Makes a Civil War, and Who Declares It So?"

Wong begins: "Is Iraq in a civil war? Though the Bush administration continues to insist that it is not, a growing number of American and Iraqi scholars, leaders and policy analysts say the fighting in Iraq meets the standard definition of civil war."

A day later, NBC's Today show clumsily announced the change, calling attention to what it must think will become the latest "Cronkite Moment" of the Iraq war.