Other Matters: How About A Little Courtesy?

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 Quil Lawrence“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.

Lauding The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for what he called their resolute refusal toNorman Isaacs abandon the titles Mr., Mrs. or Miss, Mr. Isaacs (pictured right) said,

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.

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  1. Donna Shore says

    R E S P E C T, find out what it means to me. Grace and civility. Edwin Newman was my word guru. His respect for the written word was in defense of plain and clear English.

  2. Jim Brown says

    I completely agree with your concerns and the conclusion that the lack of courtesy is a significant element of the runaway disrespect for those who have earned their titles.

    I heard this report live Friday morning, and playing it back, noted that while host Steve Inskeep also referred to “The President,” both generally referred to “Shinsecki” rather than General Shinsecki, or Secretary Shinsecki. .

  3. dick vartanian says

    I thoroughly enjoyed your comments on this issue and am in complete agreement. Fixing it may be a problem.

  4. says

    For several years, I have been offended by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s consistent reference to President Obama as “Barry.” Of course Miss Dowd has made a well-paid career out of mockery.

  5. Wayne Tucker says

    This disrespect for courtesy titles may have gotten its start when high-school students started referring to their teachers by last names or, even worse, by nicknames. Some of them surely became journalists and carried the habit into public conversation, even of the president. This has gone on so long that it may be beyond correction, but it never hurts to do the right thing.

  6. Tom King says

    Ah, refreshing! I always enjoy “The New York Times” and their use of courtesy titles, sadly a forgotten tag by the newspapers here in New Zealand.