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Days before President Bush announced his plan for committing 21,500 more troops in the Middle East, speculation began in the news media about how the administration would frame the increase in troop levels. Since the battle for public support is often a matter of semantics, the syntax of the troop plan may influence its success.
In this case, the President’s plan faces growing public dissatisfaction with the war and a new Democratic Congress pushing for a phased withdrawal.
Supporters of an increased deployment have often used the word “surge” to describe the plan. The term, some say, suggests temporariness and strength. Democrats, on the other hand, have used “escalate” or “escalation”—a term associated with then president Lyndon Johnson’s unpopular move to send more troops to Vietnam. Unlike surge, escalate connotes an ongoing rise, which was underscored by Senator Dick Durbin’s rebuttal to President Bush’s speech, “The escalation of his war is not the change that the American people called for in the last election.”
But the president didn’t use either of the disputed words—“surge” or “escalate”—in his speech January 10. He used the word “commit.”
So what word has the news media adopted in their coverage of Iraq policy in the week after the President’s decision? PEJ conducted various online news searches of different data bases to find out.
Surge was the clear term of choice in print, television, radio and even blogs, the search suggests. About twice as many stories employed that term over the next most popular term, “escalate” or “escalation”.
One method of testing was a Google search for the week of Jan 10-Jan 17, which yielded 18,118 stories with the word “surge,” close to double the number that used the word “escalate” or “escalation,” (10,112). Two more neutral phrases were even less common. “Troop increase” appeared in 9,177 stories, and “troop buildup” in 3,868 stories.
A search of the same terms from Jan. 10-Jan. 17 within the more limited universe of LexisNexis (52 major newspapers and 35 news broadcasters) found similar results, but also a nuance.
Again, “surge” appeared nearly twice as often as “escalate”, and (2,503 stories versus 1,296). And the neutral terms, “troop buildup” (294 stories) and “troop increase” (901 stories) were again used less.
But a closer look at how the stories were constructed shows that “surge” may have made an even stronger impression at the top of the news. If one looked at just the headlines and lead paragraphs of the stories, “surge” led “escalate/escalation” by almost a three-to-one ratio (832 stories versus 324 stories).
If one looked for even more loaded terms for the President, those highlighting the negative implications of the policy, they trailed “surge” by a factor of about 13-to-1. In the Google search, the word “gamble,” for instance, appeared in 1,350 stories in connection with Bush and Iraq. “Last chance” appeared in another 1,098 stories.
Perhaps the most negative Vietnam era term of all also showed up in the press. “Quagmire” appeared 1,044 times in the Google search.
Additionally, the football phrase for a last-ditch effort in a losing game, “Hail Mary” or “Hail Mary pass” appeared in 334 stories. But journalists and TV pundits also coined a play on that term, calling Bush’s policy a “Hail Maliki pass” (227 stories), a reference to the Iraqi prime minister on whom the president has pinned much of his hope for surge success.