Make that ‘Prisoners’ — not ‘Detainees’

Something interesting appeared in a recent New York Times “Editor’s Note” and today’s Public Editor column— an honest word to describe a group of people, not the Orwellian word the paper and virtually all other journalistic outlets have used in the past.

The topic of the editor’s note and column was the newspaper’s abysmal journalism in an earlier story about a Pentagon report that made claims the newspaper wrote down and reported in the typically stenographic style of Washington journalists. Then the paper made things worse by overstating the military’s unverifiable claims.

The honest word in the note and column was “prisoners” — describing the people we have been holding for years at Guantanamo: terror suspects who include some guilty men and some who are not guilty of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The word the paper’s editors didn’t use (though their news columns have been littered with it in recent years) is the one the government favors: “detainees.”

The difference is profound. Being detained has two common meanings. Being held involuntarily is one of them, and even in that context the holding is usually for a short period. The other meaning is to be delayed, a kind of inconvenience.

The people we’re holding indefinitely in the Guantanamo prison – with few or no rights, and no proof of their bad acts, yet in many cases with little or no hope of ever being freed – are not merely being detained. They are prisoners. Period. We shame ourselves not to call them that, but if we did they’d certainly have more rights, because prisoners of war do have rights.

“Detainee” is one of those words governments have come to deploy in their Orwellian efforts to justify their own worst behavior. Thus torture becomes “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and “waterboarding” has the ring, not coincidentally, of a theme-park ride despite the fact that the World War II allies won war-crimes convictions against people who’d used that very method of torture.

You expect this abuse of language from government. What we should expect from journalists is truth.

America has tortured people. Journalism should have the honor to use the word and not let government lie with such impunity.

We have imprisoned people — many of them quite innocent of wrongdoing, by our own account — at Guantanamo, not detained them by any common-sense definition. Journalists should use the word “prisoner” because it would be the truth, and the Times deserves a small kudo for doing it this time. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a trend.

Note: I’ve asked the Times’ public editor whether this represents a change in policy and, if so, whether it applies to the news columns as well as editorial pages and notes. I’ll let you know if he responds.

(A short portion of this posting comes from a piece I wrote in 2007 for PR Week magazine.)