Professional journalists know, or should know, that certain words are not to be used outside their proper contexts. For instance — murder. A person accused of murder did not murder anyone and is not a murderer in crime reporting until that person is convicted of the criminal charge in a court of law. Until then, the crime is called a killing, slaying, shooting death — or whatever. Americans are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The rules governing crime reporting reflect that value.
Assassination warrants special treatment, too. The term is popularly understood to be synonymous with murder, but there are important differences — just as there are important differences, legal and moral, among homicide, murder, and manslaughter.
According to the AP Stylebook, the bible of such matters among professional journalists, a "homicide" is a legal term for a killing; a "murder" is malicious, premeditated homicide; and a "manslaughter" is homicide without malice or premeditation.
An assassination is certainly malicious and premeditated, but it is much more. It "involves the murder of a politically important or prominent individual by surprise attack," according to the AP Stylebook. Moreover, an "assassin" is "a politically motivated killer" as opposed to a "killer" who "kills with a motive of any kind" or a "murderer" convicted of the crime by a jury.
Taken together, these rules exclude more than they include. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. John Lennon and Tupac Shakur were not. Lee Harvey Oswald was an assassin. His killer, Jack Ruby, was not.
Yet since December 20, we have seen assassination used to characterize the killing of two New York City police officers. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton that evening said, "They were, quite simply, assassinated." Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, on "Fox and Friends," said, "What happened yesterday was an assassination."
News media in New York and elsewhere blindly followed suit. CBS News, the New York Daily News, USA Today, and Newsday all used assassination indiscriminately, as if it were an observable fact. The San Antonio Express-News ran an editorial with this astounding headline, "No Other Word for It — Assassination."
Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were no doubt exemplary police officers. Ramos was a father of two; Liu had just been married. They were indeed killed in a horrific surprise attack. After killing his girlfriend, Ismaaiyl Brinsley wrote on Instragram that he'd put "wings on pigs." He then ambushed Ramos and Liu before turning the gun on himself.
While Ramos and Liu served with honor, distinction and sacrifice, no one can say they were "politically important or prominent individual[s]," like a president or leader of a political movement. Were they murdered in cold blood? Yes. Assassinated? No.
Public figures like William Bratton and Rudy Giuliani aren't bound by the same codes of conduct that journalists are — or are supposed to be. They don't choose between killer and assassin in order to find proper ways of representing reality. They chose between them in order to shape reality, as well as the media's representation of reality and the public's understanding of it. That effort on the part of public figures to shape reality takes place in a particular context. In this case, the context is the protest movement against routine acts of police violence against African Americans and other Americans of color.
Supporters of the protest movement condemned Ismaaiyl Brinsley's rampage immediately afterward. "I unconditionally condemn today's murder of two police officers . . . I ask people to reject violence," President Obama said. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said, "It is an attack on all of us. It is an attack on everything we hold dear." Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said, "We are going in peace, and anyone who is standing with us, we want you to not use Eric Garner's name for violence, because we are not about that." His widow, Esaw Garner said, "Please protest in nonviolent ways. My husband was not a violent man, so we don't want any violence connected to his name."
Yet the New York City Police Department and its surrogates insist on a connection. Giuliani blamed Obama for months of "anti-cop propaganda" and called Sharpton the "poster boy for hating the police." Patrick Lynch, the head of the police union, took things a step further. The protest movement threatens police. Therefore, the government should suppress it. "We tried to warn. It must not go on. It cannot be tolerated," Lynch said. "That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall at the office of the mayor."
This assertion of a connection in the absence of one is what I mean when I say public figures are shaping reality. In getting the news media to blindly parrot the use of the word assassination they are attempting to shape the public's understanding of reality.
In the assertion of a connection between the protest movement against police brutality and the tragic deaths of two police officers, the New York City Police Department — and its surrogates — are creating the conditions from which they can credibly claim that Brinsley was not a killer with a motive of any kind, but a politically motivated killer. An assassin.
John Stoehr is the managing editor of The Washington Spectator, a national bulletin of news and public affairs. He has written for Newsweek, The American Conservative, The American Prospect, Columbia Journalism Review, the New Statesman, CNN, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among many others. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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