We are all aware that once the media, in one form or another, labels something or someone, and that label sticks, it’s relatively impossible to uncork that particular genie. Truth and facts have nothing to do with it.

For example, parts of the media have consistently said recently that President Barack Obama is a “weak” leader vis-à-vis foreign policy and America’s ability to lead the world by the strength of its military might and sheer exceptionalism. Never mind the fact that, so far, under Mr. Obama’s watch, the U.S. has not suffered another terrorist attack, that it was President Obama who gave the risky, but successful, orders to rescue Captain Richard Phillips from the pirates, and to get Osama bin Laden. It was President Obama who gave the orders to stop the U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan—to bring the troops home. Some parts of the media—Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, for example—have continued to beat that ‘weak leader on international affairs” horse regardless. For some in the American public, the label has stuck, and the President’s poll numbers have recently reflected that negativity.

More locally, Alex Johnson—candidate for the August 12 LAUSD District 1 school board race—has started negative campaigning against community stalwart Dr. George McKenna, in a desperate attempt to close the primary poll numbers between himself and McKenna. Within the past week or so, the Johnson campaign has put out blatant falsehoods about Dr. McKenna’s time at Washington Prep High School. In the streets, we used to say of such people (Johnson), ‘He’s a lie, and the truth ain’t in him!’ But apparently, all is fair in love and politics (although a complaint against the negative flyers has been filed with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, and there may yet be appropriate punishment for this tactic). Will the false labeling succeed? Will the tar brush find a name that sticks to Dr. McKenna?

A third example, internationally, is the Boko Haram issue. This is the group that abducted the 283 Nigerian girls from the Chibok school in April of this year. Virtually every mention of the Boko Haram group in the international media identifies the members as Islamic militant extremists, as if the label itself explains the group’s bad behavior. The media labeling is very misleading, however. The Boko Haram is actually a northern Nigerian separatist group, most of whose members happen to be Muslims. The primary aim of the group is to separate Nigeria into at least two countries—a northern Islamic territory, and a southern non-Muslim state. As extremists go, they are territorial extremists, if anything. They are also part of a continuing issue that harkens back to Nigeria’s foundation as a country as a result of British decisions connected to the 1884 Berlin Conference which balkanized Africa into most of its current countries (only Liberia, Eritrea and South Sudan are countries in Africa not born from the 1884 conference).

Nigeria was an ill-fit from the beginning—an impositional connection of rival peoples who mostly did not want to be together. The Boko Haram still represent an armed camp imbued with the fire of “I don’t want to be a part of you.”

What difference does all this make? Well, for one thing, in order to solve the problem at hand, one needs to correctly identify what that problem is. This is a truism of science, life and politics. The Nigerian government has thus far proven itself entirely incompetent in dealing with the Boko Haram. Just a few days ago, the group attacked and took over a major northern town in Nigeria, easily dispatching the government troops stationed there. No previous Nigerian government has been able to dissuade the northern separatists from their mission, and Goodluck Jonathan’s government is no different in that regard. For those of us on the outside, understanding that this is much more of an issue of territorial nationalism than religious conflict may excite some needed wisdom from us in helping to resolve the situation, or at least into not making it worse. Maybe we can assist in rescuing the abducted girls by knowing more accurately what the conflict is really about.

Be careful of media-crafted political labels. They more often obscure than clarify already murky issues and actors.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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