The Spectacle Blog

President Obama? Could you be more specific?

By on 1.14.09 | 5:04PM

Among the many "firsts" the president-elect will bring to the White House, one less-noticed change is how the daily newspapers will address him. That is, by first name on first reference.

Breaking with a decades-old tradition, the Associated Press -- keepers of the AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, which purports to serve as the "bible" for copy desks everywhere -- announced in a Nov. 12 ruling that henceforth, it would use a president's title, first name and family name whenever he or she is first referenced in a story. In other words, rather than calling him President Obama, newspapers will be expected to spell out that it is President BARACK Obama to whom they are referring (presumably, to distinguish him from the very many other President Obamas out there.)

According to the AP, the change is being made to bring the style for presidents in-line with its rules for addressing other heads of state, whose first and last names have always appeared on first reference. Apparently, showing such deferential treatment as to assume Americans know their own president's first name is the kind of imperialist attitude that no longer can be tolerated.

The old rule came into existence with Franklin D. Roosevelt, which only underscores how one can't attempt to apply logic to an institution like the AP. The Stylebook first started counseling against using first names with the 32nd president, who shared the same family name as the 26th president. They have begun instructing journalists to use them as the 43rd president leaves office, who shared the same first AND last names as the 41st. And the rule goes into effect in earnest with the 44th president, who has arguably the most distinctive name in U.S. history.

Alas, believing these changes will matter much, in practice, requires two rather large leaps of faith. One is the assumption either that newspaper writers will note the changes or that newspaper editors will consistently apply them. A cursory glance even at stories produced by the A.P.'s own staff will disabuse one of that notion pretty quickly.

The other assumption, of course, is that these things we call "newspapers" will still exist by the time the 45th president comes to town.

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