Long-time political columnist David Broder was on MPR’s Midday today, assessing President Barack Obama’s first-year performance.
But Broder’s use of “Obama” instead of President Obama rankled listener Robert Devine of New Brighton, who wrote, “It seems disrespectful to eliminate the normal title given to a high-office elected official … in the ongoing discussion and refer to them just by their last name. I would expect more from someone who has a deep background in journalism.”
Frankly, we don’t hear it very often at MPR, where we use the Associated Press Stylebook, which instructs us to use President Obama on first reference and the last name on second and subsequent references. The Stylebook, though, isn’t infallible. After all, the AP says people who enter pleas in court of “not guilty,” should be described as having entered a plea of “innocent,” even though there’s no such plea in the American judicial system.
Mr. Devine points out, too, that what might work in a newspaper, sounds entirely different on the radio:
“My opinion is that live discussion should consistently maintain the title throughout the dialog. I tuned into the middle of Mr. Broder’s discussion and hearing him refer to the present and former presidents by their last name cause me to wonder how a person in his position could endorse a disrespectful practice. I realize he had no ill intention by that practice, but it did not reflect well on him, in my opinion. Modeling good respectful behavior in speech and conduct is something every younger generation greatly needs to witness.”
Mark Knoller, who covers the White House for CBS News, says that organization’s policy is to refer to the president as Mr. Obama on second references. During the Bush administration, he said people found that offensive, too.
If on every reference I called him “President Bush,” it would grate on the ear. By calling him “Mister Bush” on second reference, we make the report easier to understand – while at the same time – showing our respect.
Is there a political motivation in the complaint? Clark Hoyt of the New York Times certainly thought so when he responded to it in 2007. Besides, he said, nobody who actually puts his feet up in the Oval Office seems to mind.
But because she, Leslie and some other readers are disturbed, I went to the White House to see what folks there think about how the president is referred to in The Times.
Are they upset at the title “Mr. Bush?”
“No, not at all,” said Tony Fratto, the deputy press secretary. “There are lots of things we find disrespectful to the president, usually on the editorial page or in a news analysis, but we take no offense at his titled reference in news articles,” Fratto said.
“Remember,” he said, “We have citizen presidents. Mr. is a perfectly fine title.”