Call Me Mister

OMBUDSMAN

December 06, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

"Why is Magic Johnson called 'Mr. Johnson' on Page 1 of The Sun and 'Johnson' in the sports pages?" a reader wonders.

Someone else recalls that Marvin Mandel was once "Mr. Mandel" in The Sun, then became "Mandel" when he was convicted of serious charges, and is now back as "Mr. Mandel." The reader asks, "What right has The Sun to do this?"

A lesbian who sued the State Police as "Jane Doe" to protect her privacy was known as "Doe" and "Ms. Doe" in different editions. "Is this a joke?" a reader asks.

No joke, but to some here it's a jungle and to others a place of civility in a society that shows little of it.

The readers were entering The Baltimore Sun's Brazilian rain forest of "courtesy titles," honorifics such as Mr. and Mrs. originally designed and still used in the second reference to show respect. The jungle has dark places, cleared spaces and occasional confusion.

Candy Thomson, Anne Arundel bureau chief, once noted this fictitious Sun scenario of how we refer to men in the second reference under current rules in different parts of the paper:

A sports story about Coach Joe Smith makes him "Smith." He opens a yogurt shop; in our business section story he is "Mr. Smith." A columnist writes about his philanthropic works and calls him "Smith." He speaks at a public hearing on sports budget cuts and he is "Mr. Smith." He runs into financial troubles and is accused of torching his yogurt business; The Sun calls him "Mr. Smith." He's convicted of a felony and called "Smith." He wins on appeal and is back to "Mr. Smith." He gets his coaching job back, and in the sports section, he is "Smith."

Title backers counter this by saying different people call any one person by different names all the time.

One rule causing questions is the old Sun tradition of taking titles away from people convicted of unspecified "serious crimes" until sentences end or judgments are overturned. A second rule is asking women which title they prefer: Mrs., Miss or Ms. If the woman's preference cannot be determined, Ms. is used. (Ms. is the commonly used term now).

Few deny that some honorifics are necessary, notes copy editor John E. McIntyre: for example, the religious, the medical, the recently dead (not "Mr. Mozart").

The Sun has used "Mr., Mrs." etc. in the second reference in local stories since after the last Ice Age thawed. Since 1968, people in national and foreign stories also get that treatment. The Evening Sun and the county editions dropped most titles for awhile with little complaint in a system I prefer. Deleting titles after convictions especially makes me squirm.

The Sun does not rush into change (until recently, the society pages used "Doctor" rather than "Dr."), recalls John Plunkett, a retired editor. So it was typical of the largely white, male, tradition-conscious paper that "Ms." met a tough fight here for years and eventually crept into use, just as the earlier "black" was unpopular among some and slipped in, replacing "Negro." ("African-American" is entering with less resistance).

Many of The Sun's writers seem to dislike most titles; copy editors are divided but face rules that beg arcane debates; for instance, whether a person's academic doctorate is relevant to a story (if not, no "Dr.").

A 1991 newsroom committee headed by Andrew D. Faith, copy desk chief with the knotty job of enforcing eight pages of rules on courtesy and other titles including royalty, was split 8 to 8 on keeping or getting rid of many honorifics. Many newspapers have dumped "Mr." etc. but others, such as The New York Times, keep the old order.

The two camps could be summarized: keep titles for a traditional Sun tone of civility that shows respect for the dignity of people vs. dropping titles to treat everyone more the same way in keeping with modern realities.

Papers reflect their own histories and their communities. In The Richmond Times-Dispatch, men are known in the second reference by their last name and married women by "Mrs." "Isn't that chauvinistic?" someone asked the paper's ombudsman. "Of course, but people appreciate chauvinism in Richmond."

Editor John S. Carroll decided to keep courtesy titles after Mr. Faith's committee report. The old rules prevail in both Sun and Evening Sun news columns today but not in sports, columns (the writer's call), reviews and some feature stories.

"Titles are an endangered species," Mr. Carroll says. "If you get rid of them, you never get them back. It's simpler to do without them. But they give you credibility, like the old style baseball stadium at Camden Yards."

OC Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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