Dept. of Style - World Problem

April 26, 2004
Source: The New Yorker

By Gary Bass

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.