Oct 1 2013

A Coup Against Candor

Why the media definition of Egypt's 'ouster' matters

This summer, amid the chaos in Egypt, there was another storm: what to call it?

Consider the differences in these two ways of putting things, taken from a New York Times blog (Lede, 7/4/13): “what Mr. Morsi and his supporters have described as ‘a complete military coup’” versus “the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi.”

The first tells you exactly where those words are coming from—so carefully, in fact, that it seems to make the point that this is not what the paper calls it. The second phrasing is in the paper’s own voice, which matches US rhetoric on the subject.

This media failure to call a coup a coup, following the Obama administration’s realpolitik decision to not label it as such, robbed the public of crucial analysis and let the administration slide. The Foreign Assistance Act forbids the US government from supplying foreign aid to a country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree” until a democratic government is restored (WorldViews, 7/3/13). The president cannot override that law. Seems pretty straightforward. But the United States gives $1.5 billion dollars to the Egyptian military every year, an aid package second only to Israel’s. This has helped insure 34 years of Egyptian cooperation with Israel, as well as preferential US access to the Suez Canal and overflight privileges. If the United States recognized the situation in Egypt as a coup, that aid would need to stop.

Aside from the $1.5 billion question, there is another important issue at stake: how soon Egyptians will regain an elected civilian government. University of Kentucky political scientist Clayton Thyne published a study (Monkey Cage, 7/9/13) right after the coup, summarized by Washington Post blogger Max Fisher (WorldViews, 8/16/13):

Coup governments tend to hang on to power longer and make the transition to democracy more slowly when they have support from foreign states and international organizations. What he termed “negative support”—in other words, criticism, for example by labeling the military takeover as a coup—actually seems to make a transition to democracy faster and more likely.

Barack Obama has avoided using the word “coup,” instead referring to “the current unrest in Egypt” (7/3/13), “the military’s intervention” and “the situation in Egypt” (8/15/13). The media have played along with such euphemisms, favoring the word “oust” above all—a word devoid of legal meaning.

New York Times photo of Morsi's ''ouster''

The New York Times’ caption (7/3/13) is careful not to call it a ”coup.”

The New York Times’ initial report (7/4/13) was headlined “Army Ousts Egypt’s President; Morsi Is Taken Into Military Custody.” The story explained that “Egypt’s military officers removed the country’s first democratically elected president” and “installed an interim government.” “Coup” was used in the article, but within quotes of supporters of deposed President Mohamed and then Morsi himself.

The Times started one article (7/5/13; FAIR Blog, 7/5/13) with the fleetingly encouraging lede:

By all accounts, the generals removed the democratically elected president, put him in detention, arrested his allies and suspended the constitution. Army vehicles and soldiers in riot gear roamed the streets, while jet fighters roared overhead.

But was it a military coup d’état?

The article appeared to answer the question in the negative, referring to Morsi’s “ouster” for the rest of the piece. New York Times editorials have been more forthright (7/4/13), calling it “unquestionably a coup.” A July 9 editorial rather ironically complained that “the Obama administration…has refused to label the coup a coup”—not mentioning the paper’s own game of Word Twister.

Some other outlets played the same game. USA Today (9/1/13) reported that “the military ousted Morsi,” and referred to “ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi,” “Morsi’s ouster” and “a military-backed transition plan.” Christiane Amanpour (ABC News World Report, 7/3/13) said, “What you’re going to see, I’m sure, is the United States top officials are going to be turning themselves into pretzels trying not to call this a coup.” The segment’s title? “Morsi Ousted.”

NPR’s Morning Edition (7/3/13), on the other hand, simply referred to the coup as a coup without fuss. The Washington Post took a strong editorial stand (7/4/13): Under the headline “US Must Suspend Aid After Egypt’s Coup,” the paper wrote, “There is no ambiguity about what happened in Egypt on Wednesday: a military coup against a democratically elected government and the wrong response to the country’s problems.”

Unlike the Times, the Post’s news policies matched its editorial stand. When Coptic Christian protesters gathered outside of the Post’s office, angry that the paper used the word “coup” to describe the “revolution” they support, the paper’s report (8/22/13) included the line, “The Post calls it a coup in news stories.”

Emily Masters is a former FAIR intern.

Extra! October 2013