Ultra-Wrong: The Problem with Labeling 'Ultra Right'

What exactly is an "ultra right-wing" party?

NPR correspondent Sylvia Poggioli used the label to describe Norway's second-largest political party, the Norwegian Progress Party. To me, the term raises images of Nazis, but no one is seriously equating that party with anything so extreme.

Bomb and terror suspect Anders Behring Breivik (red top) leaves the courthouse in a police car  in Oslo on July 25, 2011.

Bomb and terror suspect Anders Behring Breivik (red top) leaves the courthouse in a police car in Oslo on July 25, 2011. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images

The confusion over one person's "ultra-right" and what others might call only "right-wing," or just "populist" in this case, highlights the journalistic danger of labeling in politics. More fundamentally, tendentious labeling undermines NPR's valuable role in the nation as a common platform for civil political discourse — at a time that we are in need of it.

Poggioli used her moniker in reporting on Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who admitted to killing 77 people, most of them youths at a summer camp for the country's Labor Party, generally described in the European context as "center-left." NPR's senior European correspondent reported that Breivik was a former member of the "ultra right-wing" Progress Party.

John Roberts, a listener from Sacramento, CA, wrote that Poggioli was engaging in "polemical name-calling."

David Asman, host of America's Nightly Scoreboard on Fox News, saw something more conspiratorial. "They're trying to lump this...this awful character with all the conservative groups in Europe!" he said of NPR.

Asman is a friend and former colleague of mine from The Wall Street Journal. We don't always agree on things, but there is some truth to what he says here. It's not in his attribution of motivation. Neither he nor I know what was in the reporter's heart.

But most of us probably do consider "ultra" — right or left — to be a derogatory term with sinister connotations. By linking Breivik to such a dangerous-sounding party, the NPR report tarred the Progress Party and all those other fast-growing populist parties across Europe that are generally more strident and nativist than the continent's more traditional conservative ones. The upstarts are in many ways analogous to the American Tea Party, though in Europe they are driven even more by opposition to recent mass immigration of foreigners, especially Muslims.

Given that some leaders of these political groups demonize immigrants, it may be hard to be too sympathetic when the parties are themselves demonized. But that doesn't justify labeling them in a way that that conjures up images of extermination camps. To me, just to call a group "right wing" or "left wing" is already to imply it is extremist, with all the derogatory implications that implies.

Lori Grisham in my office did a preliminary review of how newspapers and other broadcast media in the United States and abroad described the Norwegian Progress Party. She searched LexisNexis with the terms "Progress Party" and "ultra right-wing" for a month after the shooting. Only NPR described the party as "ultra right-wing." Most reports described it as "right-wing" or anti-immigrant.

We asked Poggioli to explain how she arrived at "ultra":

First of all, it may be useful to look at the term right-wing. In a continent that only 65 years ago came out of the ashes of Nazism and Fascism, the concept of "right-wing" for many decades carried strong echoes of the past.

At the same time, governments today in power in countries such as France, Germany, Britain and Italy are defined as "conservative" or "right-wing", or "center-right" coalitions.

Until recently, radical right-wing parties were marginalized and considered disreputable. For example, Norway's Progress Party—of which Breivik used to be a member—was isolated. Its anti-immigrant rhetoric made it a pariah party.

The arrival over the last two decades of millions of immigrants—mostly Muslims—on a continent where the nation-state had been based on mono-ethnic societies, has given new impetus to the ultra-right parties. The turning points were the Islamist terrorist acts of 9/11, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (2004) and the Madrid and London bombings (2004, 2005).

[Full response posted at the bottom of this column.]

Hers is a fair defense, but it also underlines how right and left are relative terms that change with time and historical circumstances — and with the beholder. Complicating matters is that the scale is different in different nations. On social policy, most U.S. Democrats would probably fall somewhere between the center and center-right in much of Europe. Should a U.S. scale be used to describe European parties for American listeners?

And what about the term "liberal"? In the U.S., it has one meaning. But in Europe and Latin America, it has the opposite. "Liberal" there has maintained its original meaning that centers around free-market capitalism.

Concerning immigration itself, the center-right prime ministers (European-scale) of Germany, Britain, France and Italy are themselves critical of large-scale immigration and what they call "multi-culturalism." Does that now make them "ultra-right", too? I don't think so. As Poggioli herself suggests, profound cultural, religious and historical sensitivities are at play in Europe — more so even than in the U.S. Using charged terms like "ultra right" would seem not to contribute to understanding these sensitivities. I say this as an immigrant myself.

I could be wrong about the Norwegian Progress Party, but that's the point: using "right" or "left" as convenient short-hand descriptions is slippery because they are imprecise and subject to interpretation. Adding superlatives such as "ultra" is even more so and, in fact, is dangerous.

NPR has guidelines that discourage political labeling in coverage of the Middle East, but senior editors say it doesn't have a formal policy more generally on this kind of terminology. It should. Already last year, my predecessor, Alicia Shepard, wrote about the political blowback in a similar case in which two Republican politicians in Utah were described in a NPR report as "ultra-conservative."

Editors might begin by looking at the Associated Press Stylebook, which says that reporters should, "generally try to avoid [right-wing/left-wing] in describing political leanings."

Or NPR could follow the example of The New York Times, where Patrick LaForge, an editor, responded to our query on its policy:

We ask reporters to be wary about using broad labels for individuals, movements or parties. It is best to focus on specific positions on specific issues (an "anti-immigration movement," for example).

For "arch-" and "ultra-" we have Stylebook entries:Regarding "arch-" —

"Though the prefix usually means chief or principal, it sometimes connotes extremism, warranting caution with phrases like archconservative, archradical, archliberal, arch-Protestant and arch-Republican."

and

"In applying ultra to a person or a belief, beware of a pejorative suggestion of excess. Ultraconservative, for example, can seem to mean too conservative. And a faction described as ultra-Orthodox may consider itself merely Orthodox.

NPR's Middle East guidelines themselves provide down to earth examples that, while dated, remain relevant for all NPR coverage to follow:

Use of political labels. We also need to take care in applying political labels to players in the Mideast, (just as we should take care in doing so in US politics). What is the difference we are trying to suggest when we label someone an "extremist" as opposed to a "hardliner" or a "right winger" or a "conservative"? Certainly, in the constellation of politics, "extremist" is a pejorative compared to the other three and if we use it, we should have good reason.

Why do we label some politicians and not others? In the Middle East we have tended to refer to Ariel Sharon as a 'hardliner," which he certainly is. But we never seem to use the same terminology for Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders. The reason seems to be that Sharon IS a hardliner in terms of Israel's democratic politics. Because Arafat's rule is autocratic rather than democratic that sort of labeling doesn't fit. The solution seems to be not to use such political labels at all. Or if we need to qualify someone because of the political positions then take we should explain those positions.

Example:

· Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has taken a hard-line position against peace negotiations, said today ....

· Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has ruled the West Bank and Gaza with an iron hand, etc...

Beyond upholding its standards for accuracy, there is urgency to NPR maintaining a non-judgmental tone in its political labeling. U.S. politics are becoming more polarized, and the right-left labels are increasingly used as negative characterizations of the other side. Even worse is the casual smearing of politicians by pinning ideologies on them that have no basis in fact, such as "socialist" or "fascist."

Talk radio, the internet and cable television news are returning the United States to its early 19th century roots of stridently partisan, highly opinionated news media. Some find that cause for celebration; I find it cause for alarm. Because of technology, the spread, speed and power of media is far greater now than anyone in the 19th century could have imagined.

In tendentious political labeling, the news media — and the nation — may be playing with fire.

Lori Grisham and Andrew Maddocks contributed to this report.


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