Mubarak just became a dictator...this month?

Press Criticism | By Craig Gurian

February 16, 2011 — Like so many others, I followed with great interest and concern the shifting fortunes of those seeking to overthrow the long-time Egyptian regime. Ten days ago, I was startled to read in the New York Times the reporters’ straightforward characterization of that government as “the dictatorship led for almost three decades by Mr. Mubarak, a pivotal American ally and pillar of the existing order in the Middle East.”

Foreign affairs in Remapping Debate?

No, it’s not a new beat. Just an exception to the rule — otherwise known as editor’s prerogative.

It’s not as though I had scrupulously followed the reporting in the Times on Egypt over the years, but the use of the term “dictatorship” instead of the euphemistic “authoritarian” was bracing.

Had I just missed what had been, for years, standard usage in the Times? Sadly, no. A search on the paper’s website (confirmed by a Nexis search) revealed the period from 2000 to 2010 as one almost completely devoid of the use of the term “dictator” or “dictatorship” as a factual description by a reporter in a news article.

There were a few opinion pieces — like one from 2005 that described Egypt as one of the states where post-colonial governments “deteriorated quickly into dictatorships.” And there was a 2009 Week in Review piece that asked rhetorically whether President Obama wanted “to be seen as the architect of a policy that gives a dictator free rein in exchange for strategic cooperation.”

But that seems to have been it.

It is one thing to argue about when American leaders should raise or lower the level of rhetoric when characterizing the governments of other countries.  It likewise seems not unexceptional that people would differ about the circumstances, if any, where American foreign policy should subordinate human rights concerns in the service of the “stability” that a dictator brings (although it is hard to imagine many Americans not being chagrined when presented with the sordid record of U.S. collaboration with a host of dictators over the decades).

Newspapers, on the other hand, should not hesitate to value truth-telling over diplomacy. Yet it appears as though — for a very long time — truth-telling at the Times lost out.


Research assistance from Althea Webber.

Send a letter to the editor