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That's 'Mister' To You, Buddy

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally on Oct. 5 in Abingdon, Va.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally on Oct. 5 in Abingdon, Va.

What's in a title? Political suspicions, for one thing.

"I hear NPR's correspondents refer to President Obama as 'President Obama' or 'the president' all the time," wrote Christopher Kluth, of Wauwatosa, Wis., "yet when it comes to former Governor Mitt Romney, NPR's correspondents refer to the former governor as simply 'Mitt Romney' or 'Romney'. I consider the contrast in the two approaches disrespectful, unprofessional, and, actually, evidence of partisan bias."

Lois Callahan-Moore from Fairhaven, Mass., heard different titles and suspected a different bias.

"It is incredibly disrespectful to refer to our sitting president as Mr. as if he is an ordinary citizen," she wrote. "He should be referred to as President Obama. It is very curious given that Mr. Romney is at times still referred to as 'Governor Romney' though he is presently an ordinary citizen."

Truth be told, a quick review of NPR's transcripts found the on-air titles given to Mitt Romney to be all over the place. Correspondents and hosts have called him "former Gov. Mitt Romney," "Gov. Mitt Romney," as well as "Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney." Like ordinary citizens (no mean company in a republic, especially when you want to be their leader) he also is called just "Mitt Romney" and, as a second reference, "Romney," the style for almost everyone mentioned on NPR.

Deputy Managing Editor Stu Seidel said the variety for Romney is intentional, while the style is more restricted in referring to a president, any president:

NPR on-air policy is to refer to the president and past presidents on second and later references as "Mr." This is long-standing policy. It has existed through Republican and Democratic administrations.

When referring to others, whether they are presidential challengers or other people frequently in the news, we try to vary second and later references. For an individual such as Romney, using "governor" or "the GOP presidential challenger" or some other formulation simply lends variety to the cadence of a story.

The rules for the Web are different. I myself was corrected last week when in a column I referred to President Obama as "Mr. Obama" as a second reference. Susan Vavrick, senior editor for digital news, wagged a figurative finger at me and said the correct style on NPR.org is simply "Obama." I stood sheepishly corrected. But when we asked her about how to identify the presidential challenger, the rules are less clear. Wrote Vavrick:

There is no set rule; context is the basis. "Former Gov." is useful most of the time, but if we had also called him Republican presidential candidate, we wouldn't also add in "former Gov." as it would be too unwieldy.

"Former" can be and is usually dropped when it was a long time ago. But how long is again a judgment call; there is no hard and fast rule specifying any particular time frame. It's certainly not needed for historical figures, just for folks in the recent past. Off the top of my head, I'd say beyond one decade is the point at which it's usually no longer necessary. For someone like Mitt Romney, "former" should be used on a first reference if we are saying "former Gov. Mitt Romney" without including the term presidential candidate (as I said previously, we don't pile on; at this stage of the campaign the double identification is not necessary). Our Web style for secondary references is just surnames, without repeated titles.

We also occasionally refer to him as just the former governor (without a name) on a later reference if we're trying to avoid repetition.

Readers will be tested on the rules at the end of this column.

Broadcast journalism style often differs from print and Web style, but I'm not sure there's a good reason why for this case.

Politicians and advocates, of course, make their own rules, to suit their advantage. In their debate this week, I noted that President Obama referred to the man across the stage as "Gov. Romney." Journalist Dan Amira recently wrote in New York Magazine that since June, Obama had shifted from using the "governor" title to saying just "Romney." "It's a small and fairly inconsequential change, but surely a deliberate one," speculated Amira. "'Governor Romney' communicates an innate credibility and legitimacy that 'Mr. Romney' lacks."

Perhaps. But what the many usages demonstrate is that more than journalistic right or wrong, the issue is social and cultural. The same questions arise in referring to many current and former office holders. In New York City, where I live part of the week, for example, two former mayoral giants—Democrat Ed Koch and Republican Rudy Giuliani—are routinely addressed in public and in media interviews as "Mr. Mayor," while the real current Mr. Mayor is Michael Bloomberg, himself a considerable presence.

In this age of permissiveness, however, there is one bulwark trying to maintain order. This is the . Yes, there is still one, and it provides etiquette training for diplomats and arrivistes to the capital. Robert Hickey, the school's deputy director, offered this guidance on his blog:

Jobs of which there is only one officer holder at a time--Governor of a state, Mayor of city, President, Vice President of the U.S., Speaker of the House of Representatives--do not continue to be directly addressed in writing or conversation by their former "office" because it is not respectful to the current office holder and confusing to those in the (organization/state/whatever) as to who is currently in charge.

Jobs of which many hold the same office/rank at the same time DO continue to be addressed by their former honorific--Senator, Judge, Captain, Admiral, General, Professor--after leaving their position.

Hickey told The Washington Post that the correct title for Romney is "Honorable":

'Honorable' is a personal rank and continues with the person for life. Politicians typically use their job titles so people know exactly what they are – or were. 'Honorable' is the proper title once they leave office, he says. So, really we should be saying 'the Honorable Bill Clinton' and 'the Honorable Mitt Romney,' instead of 'President Clinton' and 'Governor Romney.'

I am afraid that poor Mr. Hickey lost this battle at about the time Andrew Jackson threw open the White House to the unwashed masses. I don't imagine that any NPR host will be referring to anyone anytime soon as "the honorable" as a rule. It reeks of nobility.

Or is it more democratic? All those Mr. Mayors and Mr. Presidents could remind us of former dictators who refuse to go away.

Hmm. You decide.

Assistant to the ombudsman Lori Grisham contributed to this post.

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.
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