When is terrorism not terrorism?

When a husband and wife allegedly murdered two police officers and a bystander in Las Vegas, the story received a lot of coverage. But it was coverage that mostly failed to call the crimes “terrorism,” despite the alleged killers leaving behind a note that said, “The revolution is beginning,” and a Revolutionary-era “Don’t Tread on Me” flag closely associated with both the Patriot and Tea Party movements (Hatewatch6/9/14). The couple, both white, were also associated with far-right causes and had expressed extreme hostility toward authorities.

When the Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi asked about this media omission in a trenchant report (6/10/14) headlined, “In the News Media, Are Muslims the Only ‘Terrorists’?,” he got some interesting answers . The Associated Press‘ Paul Colford told him the AP shied away from the using the “terrorist” term unless someone has been “listed or labeled as such by someone else, such as the FBI or another government entity.”

Farhi also cited the Reuters style book which, he reported, tells journalists to

use the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” only when attributing them to a specific source. “Aim for a dispassionate use of language so that individuals, organizations and governments can make their own judgment on the basis of facts.”

It doesn’t say much for journalists making independent judgments. But as Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American Islamic Relations told the Post:

Without a doubt, if these individuals had been Muslim, it not only would be called “terrorism” but it would have made national and international headlines for weeks…. It was an act of terror, but when it’s not associated with Muslims, it’s just a day story that comes and goes.

Perhaps the most revealing quote in Farhi’s report came from Daniel Bynam of the Brookings Institution, who told him media avoid the “terrorist” label in such cases because “many of the objectives [of right-wing extremist groups] are close enough to legitimate political movements” that the labeling might disturb those in the movements “who don’t have violent aims.”

Which may explain why some outlets, including CNN, were refusing to even call the Millers’ politics “right-wing,” as C.J. Werleman found in an Alternet report (6/9/14) documenting how the cable station avoided describing the the alleged killers politics as anything other than “extremist.”

This pattern of journalistic denial diminishes the role of white, right-wing terrorism in the US, which Werleman points out resulted in 348 murders between 1990 and 2010–nearly 20 times as many murders as were committed over the same period by Muslim Americans whom the press often didn’t hesitate to label “terrorists.”

But it also exposes the gaping double standards that are applied by media and society to violent and threatening behavior depending on what group is doing the threatening. As Black Agenda Report‘s Glen Ford (6/11/14) observed about the Millers having participated in the heavily armed anti-government gathering at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch in May:

If a thousand armed blacks had gathered in one place, pointing rifles at federal officers, and two of them later cold-bloodedly assassinated policemen, the federal response would touch every black neighborhood in America. But the armed white right gets a pass.

It’s not just the police and other authorities; the armed white right gets a pass in the press too.

FAIR, 13 June 2014