Militiamen? Activists? Terrorists? After the seizure of a federal wildlife management building in eastern Oregon by armed protesters on Saturday, the media have struggled with how to refer to the people involved, says the Washington Post. Descriptions have included “self-styled militiamen” (Reuters), “armed activists” (New York Times) and “armed protesters” (Washington Post), and other variations. Media attempts to find a neutral formulation were in stark contrast with the partisan fray on social media, where supporters and detractors of the protesters found their own adjectives. Most of those posting under the Twitter hashtag #OregonUnderAttack used more loaded phrases, such as “domestic terrorists.” The group's leaders said they occupied the empty federal building near Burns, Or., to protest the federal treatment of local ranchers convicted of arson for burning federal land. Ranchers Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, are to enter federal prison today.
The debate over what to call the 150 or so men involved in the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is reminiscent of other controversies involving labels that can be interpreted as biased. Republicans have pressed President Obama and Democratic presidential candidates to use “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe various terrorist acts, which Democrats have rejected as inaccurate and unhelpful to combating terrorism. Most major news outlets were avoiding the use of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” in connection with the Oregon protest, saying it was unclear that the group was trying to terrorize or harm anyone. “We are mainly referring to them as 'protesters' or 'armed men who are occupying the refuge headquarters,' ” said Kim Murphy, a Los Angeles Times editor. “This is a dispute that clearly goes to a fundamental public policy debate, and we don't add any value by attempting to characterize it.”