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One Man, One Big Identity Crisis

Should the media refer to Iraqi president as 'Saddam' or 'Hussein'?

September 30, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN and RANDY TRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein has been a familiar name since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But as the United States again weighs the prospect of war with Iraq, the question of what to call the Iraqi president is becoming a bit of a media quandary.

At National Public Radio, a caller from Grand Rapids, Mich., wondered whether calling the Iraqi president by his first name was part of a deliberate media effort to demean him.

In Seattle, Post-Intelligencer reader representative Glenn Drosendahl tussled with a similar question from a reader.

And in Jacksonville, Fla., an editor at the Times-Union raised the same topic at a periodic review of rules by the paper's in-house style committee, which decrees every element of style from how to quote those who stutter to whether to use obscenities.

Most Arab scholars insist that it is not belittling to refer to Saddam Hussein as Saddam for several reasons: first, that is his given name, whereas Hussein is his father's given name; second, that is how most English-language newspapers in the Arab world refer to him and how Iraqis refer to him when they're not calling him Mr. President; and finally, Saddam seems logical because that is how most Americans now know him.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 332 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect translation--In an article in Monday's Southern California Living about how news organizations refer to Saddam Hussein, the name Abdul was incorrectly translated as "son of." The correct translation is "servant of."

"Strictly speaking, calling him by Hussein makes no sense," said Michael Fischbach, a historian at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., who specializes in the Middle East. "It's like Madonna. That's his name."

Still, a vague sense of discomfort is felt by some editors, who worry that perhaps they are being manipulated by a White House seemingly intent on war, as they were 12 years ago when the president's father, George H.W. Bush, deliberately mispronounced Saddam Hussein's name. Putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable, experts say the first President Bush also converted the meaning of the name in Arabic, from sa-DAM, which means one who confronts, to Sad-um, which means a barefoot beggar.

"During the last war, you saw Saddam in print more because the first President Bush decided to have fun with the pronunciation," said Edward Turzanski, who teaches political science at La Salle University in Philadelphia and who used to be a government analyst. "Now you see Hussein more often. It's anglicized."

The nation's largest newspapers--including the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post--refer to the Iraqi leader on second reference as Hussein; the more formal New York Times and Wall Street Journal call him Mr. Hussein. By contrast, USA Today is sticking with Saddam, as is Associated Press, which sets style rules for 1,700 U.S. newspapers and 5,000 television and radio outlets in the United States.

CNN splits the difference--using neither Saddam nor Hussein on second reference, but rather Saddam Hussein, or the Iraqi president.

For some, the larger question is whether calling the Iraqi leader Saddam, although linguistically proper, may play into White House efforts to personalize the conflict with Iraq.

"It is not in and of itself insulting," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. "In Iraq, they do call him Saddam, and sometimes in an endearing way."

What bothers him, said Telhami, is that the American media treat Saddam Hussein as if he were Iraq, something he says the press would never do to the king of Saudi Arabia or the president of Egypt. "Ever since the Gulf War, there's been an individual focus on Saddam," he said.

That finding is borne out by Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media & Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based media think tank. A study conducted by the center found that in coverage of the Persian Gulf War, 86% of references to the Iraqi leader on television broadcasts were negative, portraying Saddam Hussein as a butcher who had used chemical weapons on his own people or as a dictator who had tortured and killed his opponents.

Lichter says television journalists were hardly benign in their descriptions. "If they shifted from the full name to the first name, it's not an indicator of some lessening of respect," he said, since there was apparently precious little of that to begin with.

The problem of how to refer to international figures is not new. Asian names have long bedeviled Americans trying to pronounce them correctly, but their ordering has never been much of a problem--in referring to Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung as Mao, for example, American editors were only conforming to Chinese style that puts the family name first.

Afghan names have been more of a challenge, as many in Afghanistan use only one.

And there are others whose names cause confusion. An opposition leader who was killed as he attempted to enter Afghanistan last October was named Abdul Haq. Abdul means "son of," so his name translates as son of Haq, his father. Some news outlets referred to the assassinated leader as Mr. Haq, even though, in this case, using both names might make linguistic sense.

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