Language, Militias and Occupation

What should we call an armed group that takes over federal property and makes political demands? “Armed group” is a start. So too “militants,” “insurgents” and “armed insurrectionists.” Some want even stronger language: “terrorists” or “domestic terrorists” is their choice.

The New York Times originally called the group behind the weekend takeover of a federal building in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon “armed activists,” while The Washington Post added a modifier (“armed anti-government activists”) before settling on “occupiers” in its initial reporting.

While newsrooms wrestle with the semantics, “militia” continues as a go-to term. (USA Today: Oregon militia takeover: How did we get here?; MSNBC Militia members occupy Oregon refuge, vow to stay for ‘years’; Al Jazeera: FBI seeks peaceful end to Oregon militia occupation; CBS News: FBI takes helm of efforts to end militia occupation.)

Even though “militia” is significant in the American lexicon (a 2011 FBI statement explains why the agency includes “militia extremists” as a domestic terror threat), critics are unsatisfied, find the word too soft and want more forceful language used.

Meantime, the Associated Press is moving away from the term but is doing so, it says, to bring clarity to its international audience.

“We’re trying to avoid terms like ‘militia’ and ‘militiamen,'” writes Tom Kent, Standards Editor for the Associated Press. “AP content must be clear for readers around the world, and ‘militiamen’ may be confusing — readers might think that the people involved are members of a government-sanctioned paramilitary force who are rebelling against government authority.”

Kent writes that the AP has settled on “‘armed men,’ ‘armed ranchers’ and so forth” to describe those who took over the wildlife refuge.

And so forth?

Listen to The Washington Post’s Janell Ross and her take on early reporting of the event:

[No] one seemed to lean toward terms such as “insurrection,” “revolt,” anti-government “insurgents” or, as some on social media were calling them, “terrorists.” When a group of unknown size and unknown firepower has taken over any federal building with plans and possibly some equipment to aid a years-long occupation — and when its representative tells reporters that they would prefer to avoid violence but are prepared to die — the kind of almost-uniform delicacy and the limits on the language used to describe the people involved becomes noteworthy itself.

Inherent in the critique is recognition of a double standard. We don’t need to close our eyes to imagine very different coverage if, as Vox notes, “black or Muslim protesters with guns took over a government building instead of a predominantly white group.”

Over on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall describes the somewhat delicate coverage of the building occupation as both a “mainstreaming of violent right wing extremism” and a type of “white privilege performance art“:

[I]f we think about it, we all know that it doesn’t get a very tough response because the country just takes it for granted that white people in the interior West just act weird and do stuff like this.

Which, sure, partially true, but more a reflection of the media bias employed when other protest groups in the US and abroad are covered. See, for example, Joshua Keating’s satirical take on how the US media would cover the takeover had it occurred in a foreign country. (“An armed rebel group has seized control of a government building in the country’s sparsely populated northwest frontier territories.”)

Which isn’t to say that we should be throwing around stronger language, specifically the “terrorist” tropes bandied about (mostly) playfully with #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS.

As Brian Beutler writes in The New Republic, the group’s behavior is “obnoxious, illegal, and incredibly reckless.” But, he adds:

It’s also quite different from, say, shooting several people in a Planned Parenthood clinic to scare women out of having elective abortions. To paraphrase Ted Cruz and the rest of the Republican primary field, these guys are radical, but they aren’t terrorists.

Coming at this from a different angle is Slate’s Jamelle Bouie who writes about the tempered law enforcement response to the occupation.

Again, critics charge that the response would be drastically different if the armed group was non-white, and especially if it was an identifiably Muslim group.

But, argues Bouie, suggesting that this group should be treated with the same aggression and force that we saw in, say, Ferguson, misses an opportunity:

[W]hy won’t they shoot at armed white fanatics isn’t just the wrong question; it’s a bad one. Not only does it hold lethal violence as a fair response to the Bundy militia, but it opens a path to legitimizing the same violence against more marginalized groups. As long as the government is an equal opportunity killer, goes the argument, violence is acceptable.

But that’s perverse. If there’s a question to ask on this score, it’s not why don’t they use violence, it’s why aren’t they more cautious with unarmed suspects and common criminals? If we’re outraged, it shouldn’t be because law enforcement isn’t rushing to violently confront Bundy and his group. We should be outraged because that restraint isn’t extended to all Americans.

The same argument extends to language. While we should hold newsrooms accountable for how they describe all groups, and the double standards that emerge when they do so, the solution isn’t the amplified and hysterical labels we so often see.

It’s smarter, more thoughtful, and more nuanced reporting than we so often see.

Image: Ammon Bundy and other armed occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

Michael Cervieri
michael@thefjp.org

Michael Cervieri is the creator of the Future Journalism Project where he explores better ways to produce, consume and understand the news. He has taught Internet and Mobile communication technologies at both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the university’s School of International and Public Affairs. (Twitter | Contact)