Ph.D. Octopus

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Is that Mr. Bin Laden to you? A question for the NYT’s public editor

with 8 comments

by Wotty

To the Public Editor:

On Monday’s front page, Osama Bin Laden is variously referred to as “Mr. Bin Laden” or simply, and more frequently, “Bin Laden” (not to mention “bin Laden”). The Times’ policy of preceding everyone’s name with an honorific is certainly quaint and perhaps obsolete—to echo a recent, infamous judgement of the Geneva Conventions—but, like the Conventions, if the policy is in place, it must be applied equally to all, especially in the hardest cases; otherwise it becomes worse than meaningless. On what criteria was the Bin Laden decision made? Does it establish a precedent? If so, can we anticipate similar decisions in the future for America’s enemies?


Written by (wotty)

May 2, 2011 at 11:52

8 Responses

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  1. Not sure what this post is saying, but if it’s saying anything at all, not sure I like it. Um…


    May 2, 2011 at 15:31

  2. Well I, for one, am just happy to know that I’ll forever be safe from terrorism, and that no one will ever again try to harm an American. Its like when they caught that drug dealer in my neighborhood and everyone stopped using drugs for the rest of eternity.


    May 2, 2011 at 15:38

  3. …unless there’s a sexual identity issue regarding person Bid Laden hitherto overlooked, unreported or unknown.


    May 2, 2011 at 15:42

  4. Steve, I realize the “point” may have been a little obscure and I appreciate your attempting to puzzle it out! So I’ll try and nail it down a little more (for myself, as much as for you). I’ve never really liked the Times’ policy of preceding everyone’s name with an honorific (an article about Tom Waits, for example, will refer to him as “Mr. Waits” on second reference). But I think my point was that, if you’re going to have the policy then I don’t really like the idea of a newspaper deciding who gets an honorific and who doesn’t (for example, the Times used to deny them to prisoners). Should we now expect all proclaimed or alleged terrorists to be denied the Mr. or Ms., or do we just confine it to the “really bad” ones? If so, who decides and on what grounds? Should the Times drop the honorific for Bradley Manning or Julian Assange? How about the Long Island serial killer? It’s a slippery slope, and I’ve never liked the idea of saying Bin Laden and his ilk belong to some sub-species of unique evil; this is to accord them far too much importance. Calling him “Mr. Bin Laden”—if you’re going to be so quaint in referring to every other human—strikes me as another small triumph over the man and his ideas.

    Anyway, let me know if you have a moment and care to whether this helps clarify matters any more. I realize it may seem like an insignificant point in the midst of all the hoopla, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s actually quite important in its modest, querulous way. It’s a marked shift in Times policy—I learnt subsequently that a memo was sent out to all staff ordering that the “Mr.” be dropped from Bin Laden coverage, though not saying why (perhaps because it was so obvious, but I would have liked to see the rationale in print)—so I’m kind of hopeful that the public editor will address it on Sunday. He’s utterly gutless as a public editor, but even baseball coverage in the paper right now is about Bin Laden’s death so I’m thinking he’ll want to jump on the bandwagon.


    May 3, 2011 at 12:02

  5. In this piece:

    even Khaled Shaikh Mohammed gets a “Mr. Mohammed.”

    I hate this Times policy. I think they should just end it all together. Save some ink for those who still read it on paper.

    Note also that the sports pages don’t use the policy.

    Even after tossing a no-hitter, Francisco Liriano doesn’t get a “Mr.”


    May 4, 2011 at 08:33

    • nice catch, weiner. it’s true, the fact that KSM get the Mr treatment and BL doesn’t shows up how silly this policy and the BL exception are. does this mean KSM is somehow a “better” more “deserving” human than BL? of course it doesn’t. and, yeah, they discontinued the Mr in the sports pages a while back. “Mr. Reyes hit another game-tying single”…


      May 6, 2011 at 11:52

      • To the Public Editor:

        I sent a letter earlier this week on the dubious decision—unevenly applied on the first front page after his killing—to make an exception for Bin Laden and remove the honorific on second reference. I’d like to add to that by asking, why, in the following piece — — does KSM receive the honorific throughout? Are we meant to conclude that KSM is a less “evil” more deserving human being? What was the rationale for the Bin Laden decision? It’s a silly policy, as the Mr. KSM business makes clear; apply it to all, or apply it to none. I prefer the latter.


        May 6, 2011 at 12:15

  6. The only place they should continue the policy is in the wedding announcements section:


    May 6, 2011 at 14:33

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