Mr. Bin Laden: Why did the New York Times strip Osama of his honorific?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 2 2011 6:50 PM

Goodbye, Mr. Terrorist

How did the New York Times decide to strip Osama Bin Laden of his honorific?

Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of al-Qaida after Osama Bin Laden, John Dickerson discusses the president's proactive role in the assassination, and William Saletan uncovers some holes in the raid narrative. Also, David Weigel describes the scene outside the White House following Obama's announcement, Anne Applebaum applauds America's use of human intelligence over expensive technologies, and Brian Palmer explains Bin Laden's burial at sea. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up here

A man reads the front page of a newspaper featuring a picture of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Click image to expand.
The May 2, 2011, New York Times

In a leaked New York Times memo, editors gave staffers last-minute instructions to drop the honorific "Mr." from Osama Bin Laden's name in Monday's newspaper. According to the Huffington Post, "it is exceedingly rare for such a prominent public figure to be denied the honorific" in the newspaper. Is that true? Was Bin Laden purposefully dissed?

Sort of. Before his body was dropped into the sea, the Times referred to Osama Bin Laden as "Mr. bin Laden," per the newspaper's house style. But the Times style manual does tell editors to "omit courtesy titles of surnames with historic or pre-eminent figures no longer living: Curie; Hitler; Lenin; Napoleon; Newton; Woolf." Exactly how cold the body needs to be before dropping the title is not specified. No article would ever describe "Mr. Washington" crossing the Delaware, but the Times did refer to "Mr. Ronald Reagan" as recently as last month, in a blog post about the budget fight in Congress. (The Gipper died nearly seven years ago.) The paper still refers to Martin Luther King Jr. as Dr. King, 43 years after his death. Even Saddam was listed as "Mr. Hussein" in his obit, and as of last month he still had the honorific.

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According to the Times, dropping the terrorist's title was a last-minute decision of minor importance, made just before going to press. The paper's print edition was inconsistent on the matter: News stories mentioned "Mr. bin Laden" while the obituary referred to "bin Laden." But the decision does seem to imply some form of moral judgment. Bin Laden is certainly a historical figure—defined as someone who will be talked about for decades—so he would have gotten the one-name treatment at some point either way. But why now? If George H.W. Bush died tomorrow, he would undoubtedly be referred to as "Mr. Bush." Idi Amin was sent off as "Mr. Amin," and Joseph Stalin was "Mr. Stalin." The Times' decision to forgo any transition period and jump straight to "bin Laden" indicates it had no fears about offending readers by shortening his name.

As such, Bin Laden joins a select crew of name-shortened Times evil-doers. Adolf Hitler was called "Hitler" even while still alive. The same went for fellow Nazis like Erwin Rommel. Pol Pot went without a courtesy title in his 1998 obituary.

Often, the decision to bestow or revoke an honorific boils down to one question: Does this sound weird? Sports figures are not given titles—you'd never say, "Mr. Jeter rounded third base"—unless they're mentioned on the society page for dating a Kardashian. (In theory, NBA Hall of Famer and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley could be referred to as "Bradley" during his NBA years and "Mr. Bradley" during the Senate section.) None of these rules applies across the entire newspaper. The Times magazine and book review sections have their own systems.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks New York Times standards editor Philip B. Corbett.

Stayton Bonner is a writer in New York.

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