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Why Do You Call Him Mr. Obama?

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A number of listeners have written in recent weeks complaining that NPR reporters refer to President Obama as "Mr. Obama." Since the mid-1970s it has been NPR's policy to refer to the president as "Mr." instead of "President" on second reference. Below is an explanatory column slightly updated from 2009. We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Why Do You Call Him Mr. Obama?
Lori Grisham, Assistant to the Ombudsman

Attentive listeners from all over the country call or email with thoughtful insights about NPR's coverage and policies.

On almost a daily basis, they tell us that NPR's policy of referring to President Obama as "Mr. Obama" on second reference is disrespectful.

"In speaking or in writing, the proper form of address for the president of the United States is 'The President' or 'Mr. President,' wrote Lana Slack of Alexandria, Va. "The President is due the respect of his office."

Here's an example in a recent audio clip:

Host Robert Siegel: In Beijing tonight, President Obama sat down for an informal dinner with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. Serious discussions were put off until tomorrow. The two leaders will hold a more formal meeting in China's Great Hall of the People. Earlier today, Mr. Obama spoke with a group of university students in Shanghai. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and he sent this report.

Although many listeners find this second reference offensive, it is not a new policy. NPR has used "Mr." since the mid-1970s when President Gerald Ford was in office. The president is the only person whom NPR routinely refers to with the Mr. honorific on second reference. If NPR does a story, say on James Hamilton, an Ohio car dealer, he will be Hamilton on second reference, not Mr. Hamilton.

"NPR has used Mister as the alternative term of respect on second (and subsequent) references to the president of the United States for decades,"said Ron Elving, senior supervising editor of the Washington desk. "I personally have been Washington editor for three presidents and we have done it consistently through this time."

To confirm Elving's statement, we pulled audio from the last three presidencies.

Please listen to the following examples:

President George H.W. Bush
All Things Considered (12/31/92)

Newscaster Dale Willman: The 1988 campaign pledge by President Bush was fulfilled today when his 1,000th point of light was honored in Boston. Mr. Bush had pledged to recognize 1,000 people or groups who were making a difference with their volunteerism.

President Bill Clinton
All Things Considered (11/21/1995)

Host Robert Siegel: President Clinton announced today that the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia had agreed to end what Mr. Clinton described as the worst conflict since World War II.

President George W. Bush
Morning Edition (09/12/2002)

Reporter Mara Liasson: As he had a year ago, President Bush also spoke about American values of tolerance and respect. 'We respect the faith of Islam,' Mr. Bush said, 'even as we fight those whose actions defile that faith.'

A few listeners accept that NPR's policy has been around for years, but still find it wrong on principle.

"It has not been any more respectable to call Presidents Bush, Clinton, Ford, Carter or Reagan 'Mr.' than to call President Obama so," wrote Roland Hayes of Newton Square, Pa.

In 2009, Ellen Weiss, then senior vice president for news, said, "We think this policy is as appropriate for President Obama as it has been for previous presidents and don't see any compelling reason to change it."

Read more about "Mr. Obama"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is the ombudsman for NPR. His column can be found on NPR.org here.