Dept. of Style: Word Problems

New Yorker, NY
April 26 2004

Issue of 2004-05-03

Among the many peculiarities of Times house style – such as the
tradition, in the Book Review, that the word `odyssey’ refer only to
a journey that begins and ends in the same place – one of the more
nettlesome has been the long-standing practice that writers are not
supposed to call the Armenian genocide of 1915 a genocide. Reporters
at the paper have used considerable ingenuity to avoid the word
(`Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915,’ `the tragedy’) and have
sometimes added evenhanded explanations that pleased many Turks but
drove Armenian readers to distraction: `Armenians say vast numbers of
their countrymen were massacred. The Turks argue that the killings
occurred in partisan fighting as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.’

The quirk was not strictly policed, and a small number of writers,
intentionally or otherwise, managed to get the phrase into the paper.
Ben Ratliff wrote, in 2001, that the Armenian-American metal band
System of a Down `wrote an enraged song about the Armenian genocide
of 1915.’ Another writer who slipped it in was Bill Keller, in a 1988
piece from Yerevan, during his time at the paper’s Moscow bureau:
`Like the Israelis, the Armenians are united by a vivid sense of
victimization, stemming from the 1915 Turkish massacre of 1.5 million
Armenians. Armenians are brought up on this story of genocide.’

Keller, who became the paper’s executive editor last July, finally
changed the policy earlier this month. During a telephone
conversation the other day, he said that his reporting in Armenia and
Azerbaijan `made me wary of reciting the word `genocide’ as a casual
accusation, because in the various ethnic conflicts that arose as the
Soviet Union came apart everyone was screaming genocide at everyone
else.’ He said, `You could portray a fair bit of the horror of 1915
without using the word `genocide.’ It’s one of those heavy-artillery
words that can get diminished if you use them too much.’

Most scholars use the United Nations definition of genocide, from the
1948 Genocide Convention: killing or harming people `with intent to
destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or
religious group.’ But, Keller says, `we were using a dictionary
definition that was the purist definition – to eliminate all of a race
of people from the face of the earth.’ The Times’ position was based
on the notion that the systematic killing that began in 1915 applied
mainly to Armenians inside the Ottoman Empire.

Last July, the Boston Globe started using the term, which, Keller
says, `made me think, this seems like a relic we could dispense
with.’ In January, the Times ran a story about the release in Turkey
of `Ararat,’ Atom Egoyan’s 2002 movie about the events of 1915. The
piece, which referred to `widely differing’ Turkish and Armenian
positions, prompted Peter Balakian, a professor of humanities at
Colgate, and Samantha Power, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning
book `A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,’ to write
a stinging letter to the editor. Balakian also got in touch with
Daniel Okrent, the paper’s new public editor, asking if he and Power
could come in and talk to the Times about the genocide style problem.
Okrent found the issue `intellectually interesting and provocative
enough that I thought Keller and Siegal’ – Allan M. Siegal, the paper’s
standards editor – `might be interested.’ Balakian and Power, joined by
Robert Melson, a Holocaust survivor and Purdue professor, met Keller
in his office on March 16th. Before the meeting started, Keller told
the group that he was going to make the change. `A lot of reputable
scholarship has expanded that definition to include a broader range
of crimes,’ Keller said later. `I don’t feel I’m particularly
qualified to judge exactly what a precise functional definition of
genocide is, but it seemed a no-brainer that killing a million people
because they were Armenians fit the definition.’

Siegal drew up new guidelines. `It was a nerdy decision on the
merits,’ he said. Writers can now use the word `genocide,’ but they
don’t have to. As the guidelines say, `While we may of course report
Turkish denials on those occasions where they are relevant, we should
not couple them with the historians’ findings, as if they had equal
weight.’ Okrent pointed out that `the pursuit of balance can create
imbalance, because sometimes something is true.’ Although the word
`genocide’ was not coined until 1944, a Times reporter in Washington
in 1915 described State Department reports showing that `the Turk has
undertaken a war of extermination on Armenians.’ You might say it has
been a kind of odyssey.

– Gary Bass