The other day in a National Public Radio story about the Veterans Administration mess and the resignation of its director, NPR correspondent Quil Lawrence (pictured) consistently spoke of “President Obama,” “Mr. Obama” and “the President.” Courtesy titles have become rare enough in journalism that I was struck by Mr. Lawrence’s use of them. Years ago, with few exceptions, print and broadcast news organizations began allowing references to presidents of the United States by their last names. It was the final disintegration of the news tradition of attaching titles in second references to people in the news—Doctor, Professor, Mr., Mrs., Miss (the latter two now replaced by Ms.). The late Norman Isaacs, often called the dean of American newspaper editors, said in a 1985 speech at a conference that I organized,
American communications has played a major role in debasing the nation’s level of civility by the broad elimination of courtesy titles for individuals of good repute. We have stripped from society its sense of personal dignity.
Does any reporter face a banker or corporate executive and address him or her by only a last name? Of course not, but the moment that reporter turns to writing, the courtesy vanishes. Television is totally confused. It treats all guests with titles but elminates the courtesy in regular on-line coverage. I don’t know where the hell they stand.
Mr. Isaacs would no doubt applaud Quil Lawrence and NPR for joining the Times and the Journal in the preservation of courtesy titles. It may just be that if newspapers, broadcast news operations and internet news outlets revived courtesy titles, they would go at least a modest way toward lifting the tone of contention and vituperation that infects so much of public life.
To hear the Quil Lawrence report that triggered these thoughts, go here.
For an early Rifftides post that reflects on matters of journalism ethics, go here.