New York Times’ Incoherent Honorifics

In the New York pages of today’s New York Times you’ll find a terrific story about a Cuban bicyclist named Damian Lopez Alfonso, who hasn’t let his handicaps (no arms) stop him from becoming a competitive racer. As the Times style requires, the story refers to him as Mr. Alfonso.

Had this story appeared in another logical location — the sports pages — the “Mr.” would have been removed. This is also a requirement of the Times’ style guide.

The Times mandates courtesy titles (Mr., Ms., etc.) only in news stories, though it drops them for some dead people and those it arbitrarily considers evil enough not to deserve them. For example, Osama Bin Laden lost his Mr. after US forces killed him in May. But Saddam Hussein was recently still being called Mr. Hussein, as Slate notes.

Entertainers get honorifics in the Times, so you’ll read stories about the Rolling Stones you’ll see references to Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards. (The Times reviewer of this Meat Loaf concert apparently couldn’t bring himself to writing the laugh-out-loud “Mr. Loaf,” and just used “Meat Loaf” throughout.)

Athletes — at least those deemed newsworthy by the Times — are entertainers, too. The make lots of money. They take lots of drugs. They get arrested. Oh, they perform. But no honorifics for them.

The Wall Street Journal used to be consistent. But in a recent move that was semi-lampooned even by its own columnist, it opted to drop the honorifics for stories in the sports section. The logic for the move? None, apart from the notion that it somehow sounded better, or at least less ridiculous, to just go with last names.

These policies aren’t just inconsistent. They’re incoherent.

They’re also a quaint vestige of a dying era, when the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the vanishingly small number of other papers that do this actually believed they were showing respect for the people they covered. (Except for supremely evil people and athletes, who obviously deserve none.) Did the papers self-enforced civility (except for athletes and people deemed supremely evil) may actually have had an impact on the journalists’ work, or on the perception of the newspapers that had this policy?

But respect is in short enough supply in our society. There’s nothing wrong with honorifics, if they’re used consistently. The incoherent policies at the Times and Journal don’t demonstrate respect for the people they cover when they deliberately omit courtesy titles for a single class of people in specific pages; rather, they demonstrate disrespect.