Saturday, June 7, 2008

Timesman Online

Paul Winfield, news editor at The New York Times, was taking questions this week.

The first reader question was a great one:

Is 'Detainee' A Strong Enough Word?
Q. Can't the word "detainees" be changed to something that doesn't sound like these people are being merely inconvenienced? This is from Monday but could be in any day's paper. When you round people up, hold them in a prison without charges, indefinitely, that is more than being "detained." It makes me feel like I'm reading propaganda instead of The New York Times.

Winfield answers:
In the case of detainee, it simply fits the definition perfectly: n. a person held in custody, usually for political reasons.

I respectfully disagree with the result, even though Winfield has several dictionaries on his side. Though technically correct, "detainee" always seems a milder version of "prisoner." If it's a word used to describe teenagers held in custody in a manner less than formal arrest, it wouldn't seem to be the right way to describe people held for years under arduous conditions.

And it raises a question in my mind about whether using it means accepting the language preferred by the U.S. government instead of using what we know to be best.

One thing about the Times, though: no doubt there was considerable discussion and debate about its use.

Random House likes the milder definition.
a person held in custody, esp. for a political offense or for questioning

And so does Merriam-Webster.
a person held in custody especially for political reasons

Wikipedia chimes in on the issue.

Winfield also shared his "Heads Up" notes about what he likes and, diplomatically, likes less, in some Times' headlines, explains some headline policies and takes on several other questions.

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