Showing respect for the office of president isn’t bias

If there’s one radio listener complaint that’s as predictable as rain, referring to the person in the Oval Office as “President” or “Mr.” is it.

Partisans will usually let a host have it if (s)he leaves out “President” before the name, and opponents will cry “foul” if the position is included.

What’s surprising is that it took almost a year before the issue came up in the Trump administration.

It came via Twitter this morning.

NPR’s Steve Inskeep was in no mood for it.

There isn’t any evidence, of course. It’s a classic case of “listener bias.”

What a history this issue has at NPR! There may be no other topic that has been addressed so many times by the people who hold the NPR ombudsman gig.

In 2009, for example the fans of President Obama objected to referring to him as “Mr. Obama” on second reference.

Listeners were sure it was a sign of disrespect from host Robert Siegel, even though, as ombudsman Alicia Shepard noted, it was the NPR policy since the Ford administration.

“I personally have been Washington editor for three presidents and we have done it consistently through this time. Just as consistent have been the letters, phone calls and emails from people who do not believe what I just said,” politics editor Ron Elving said then. “They insist we always called the previous president ‘President So and So’ on every reference and that our alleged failure to do so with the current president indicates disrespect.”

In 2012, then ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, said the issue of what to call the president on second reference has held NPR hostage. He wanted the practice ended.

It’s not hard to figure out which political side has been seeing nefarious propaganda afoot. They are wrong: presidential candidates for both parties have suffered the diminished position. Four years ago on air, Obama was just Obama (and McCain just McCain). That was fine, but four years before that, it was President or Mr. Bush versus a contender often just called Kerry.

The NPR policy grows out of a respect for the office of the presidency, a noble reason. But in the mainstream media, NPR and The New York Times are among the very few organizations that still use the honorific of president or Mr. in second references. Quaintly, however, the Times gives everyone a title. This begins with at least Ms. or Mr., even for you and me.

A few months later, NPR scrapped its style guide for honorifics because, frankly, in partisan times, respect for the office of president depends who’s in it.

“Extra respect is a suspect practice in a democracy like ours,” Schumacher-Matos wrote.

This seemingly minor matter of how to refer to the president has been a source of as much debate inside the newsroom as among some listeners and news style mavens. If in the future, you hear a host or reporter say “Mr. Obama” or whomever in a second reference, the journalist is not making a personal statement. They will have the freedom to use an honorific when it helps in the cadence or clarity of delivery. They can do that in referring to you and me, too.

So, keep your pants on.

That’s always good advice and particularly so for critics of Inskeep’s choice of words when referring to the current occupant of the White House.

It may not matter that facts are on Inskeep’s side, of course. Even though he’s been consistent in his choice of language, radio listeners often aren’t quite as thorough in an age where, with the help of social media, you can create whatever reality people are in the mood for.