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A ransom by any other name...

Associated Press

Words have power and meaning, especially in politics, which is why the parties and their pollsters invest so much energy in choosing the most effective phrases possible. Fox News didn't push "slimdown" as an ideologically pleasing alternative to "shutdown" for entertainment's sake -- it's about winning an argument by defining the parameters of the debate.

Professional news organizations are often careful on this front because they don't want to advance one set of talking points over another, and this in turn sometimes leads to interesting media pushback.

Last week, for example, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney used a variety of metaphors during a press briefing to describe congressional Republicans extortion strategies, but as Scott Wilson noted, one in particular was not well received.

[I]t was "ransom" -- a word Obama has used repeatedly to describe Republican negotiating tactics -- that struck the last press corps nerve. The usual briefing room decorum, such as it is, broke down entirely when Carney said finally that Obama would sign a debt-ceiling extension but not if it meant "paying a ransom" to Republicans.

"The president will not pay ransom for ... " Carney began.

"You see it as a ransom, but it's a metaphor that doesn't serve our purposes ... " NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro shouted back with broad support from other confused reporters.

There's an official transcript online if you want to see the complete context, but it appears that "ransom" was a bridge too far for some of the journalists covering the White House.

I'm not unsympathetic to reporters' concerns -- "ransom" is not exactly a neutral term. Republicans have acknowledged publicly that they've held the debt ceiling "hostage," but they have not gone so far as to accept "ransom" as a broadly agreed upon term.

But under the circumstances, I'm also not sure which word would satisfy the political establishment as less shrill.

Congressional Republicans threatened a government shutdown unless their demands were met, then they threatened a debt-ceiling crisis, too. GOP officials not only embraced the word "hostage" and threatened to do deliberate harm to the country unless they were satisfied by Democratic offers, but they also said they expected Democratic to make concessions in exchange for nothing -- except the release of their metaphorical hostages.

If "ransom" is excessive, what's the alternative that's both temperate and accurate? Payoff? Is that better or worse?

It's challenging to apply terms to circumstances like these, in large part because the conditions are so unusual. We're just not accustomed to seeing major political parties threaten the nation with deliberate harm in order to get their way, and these radical tactics force us to use descriptions that would probably be overly harsh during more traditional political times.

Sometimes, though, a word may be provocative, and may even carry a politically charged meaning, but it may also be right. In the case of the latest Republican hostage crisis, I'd argue the larger concern isn't whether "ransom" is too mean but whether the tactics are too dangerous.