Friday, November 14, 2008

Presidential nomenclature

Who would have thought that a small change in the AP stylebook would have touched off as much chatter as it has?

This one, which came across late Tuesday, was small enough that I was going to wait for a roundup of style changes. But perhaps in a sign of how polarized things have become (one woman I heard quoted on radio the other day said that with Obama's election she realized she had to become part of the "guerrilla opposition"), the little change of how presidential names are handled seems to have touched a nerve.

For the record: The AP will now use first names, as well as last, when referring to presidents current, former and waiting in the wings. The explanation from AP's Ask the Editor site:

To bring usage into conformity in all AP stories. For many years stories transmitted internationally have used both names when directly preceded by president. Now AP stories transmitted domestically will conform to that style.
The ACES discussion board has taken up the matter, with two of three (literally, so far) people liking it, but then this:
I can't count the number of times I've cut out "George" or "George W." to make it just President Bush, so I don't see why we should change now just because the wire service is having problems with international papers. Let the international papers and the wire service deal with it, and we'll just keep it the same.
Heck, it even rated a mention in Romenesko, with AP then prompted to explain in the comments. And a mention in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (predictably) brought out the nut jobs (see the comments).

Of course, it also goes to show that in the Internet age, even small changes in language can promote big discussions, and things the AP and others long behind the scenes in journalism might have done and gone largely unnoticed before no longer are so. That's probably a good thing.

And it does highlight, as Vanity Fair has noted, that there is an underlying vein of racism that has surfaced after the election and that has largely gone unreported nationally. When we look back, this may be one of the major untold stories of what is going on.

I fail to see any great conspiracy here. In fact, in my editing classes, the students have tended to always want to use the full name. Maybe it's out of a sense of respect, you know, that sometimes seemingly long-lost touch of civility that even if you don't like someone, you at least respect them.

Like it or not, the world is going to call Barack Obama "Mr. President." Maybe we should just give it a rest.

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