According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English language contains at least a quarter of a million words.
So what’s one word worth?
In the case of “coup,” the price tag could be up to $1.55 billion.
That’s the amount of U.S. aid to Egypt, where President Mohammed Morsi was recently removed from power.
For Egypt — the focus of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s “Great Decisions” dialogue — whether Washington calls Morsi’s downfall a coup isn’t semantic, but seminal. That’s because the Foreign Assistance Act states that no U.S. aid (besides democracy promotion) can go to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat” or where “the military plays a decisive role in a coup.”
There may be reasons the Obama administration has eschewed “coup” to describe Morsi’s removal. The administration may agree with Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik, who told Foreign Policy magazine that “it’s not a coup because the military did not take power. The military did not initiate it. It was a popular uprising. The military stepped in order to avoid violence.”
Of course, violence wasn’t avoided, and some of it involved the military. Dozens of Morsi’s supporters have been killed.
It seems more likely that President Obama is obfuscating on linguistics because he calculates that cutting off aid cuts off influence with the Egyptian military, which is more aligned with U.S. interests than is Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
But while the White House thumbs through thesauri for euphemisms to use, some internationally influential news organizations have decided to call it a coup.
“I think it’s interesting to watch as the White House and State Department try to avoid calling a coup a coup,” said Stu Seidel, managing editor for standards and practices at National Public Radio.
“But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” he added, signaling Sigmund Freud’s famous line (or at least one attributed to him).
It’s not the first time Seidel has put a word on the couch. For instance, the terms “terrorist,” “freedom fighter” and “guerrilla” can convey distinctly different meanings, and to whom they should be applied has fueled journalistic debates. But “coup” was not as tough a call, Siedel said. “Why would we not use the word ‘coup’? It’s what it means.”
The Associated Press came to the same conclusion, and detailed its deliberations in a deliberately transparent way. On an AP blog, Tom Kent, the AP’s deputy managing editor and standards editor, wrote that the news agency “took a wait-and-see approach to use the word ‘coup.’ We initially recommended that our staff not describe the events as a coup because of what appeared to be wide public support of the army’s action — and the fact that the overthrow resembled a popular revolt as much as a classic military coup.
“However the military’s subsequent action’s — jailing leaders of the Morsi regime, arresting members of his political party and cracking down on the pro-Morsi media — have made the takeover seem more than a simple response to public pressure in that first night.”
“Coup” is now acceptable in an AP headline. But, Kent wrote, “we’re asking our writers to add some qualifying explanation nonetheless. For example, we might refer to ‘an overthrow by military force — spurred by a popular revolt against the Islamist-dominated government, whose adherents resisted the coup.’ ”
CNN, watched in world capitals on its international network, “has used the term consistently from the beginning (and taken a lot of criticism for it)” said Bridget Leininger, a CNN spokesperson, in an e-mail exchange. And like the AP, CNN mulled the word choice publicly, including in an on-air exchange between Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour.
Other authoritative outlets, including PBS’s “NewsHour,” have used “ouster.”
And a nuanced New York Times’ approach was described by Foreign Editor Joe Kahn in an e-mail: “We are neither mandating that the removal of Morsi be described as a ‘coup’ nor banning the word coup in reference to what happened in Egypt. We have written several times about the controversy both inside and outside Egypt on this point, but making a formal style ruling on how we should refer to it seemed unnecessary. This was informed more by the debate within Egypt, which is vigorous on this question, rather than the language in U.S. law. There is a strong feeling there among a major part of the population that the removal of Morsi was not unlike the removal of Mubarak — the result of a popular uprising that forced the military to step in. Others see the two as radically different, given that Morsi won an election.”
This kind of vigorous debate should happen here, too — and not just among the press. The president, secretary of state and Congress should accurately assess what happened and name it accordingly. And in the process, elected officials should follow the news media’s model of transparency.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.