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Doogie, Bin Laden and the 'Mister' issue

May 10, 2011 |  8:35 am

Bin laden-500wi A decade or so ago I did a profile of the actor Neil Patrick Harris for the New York Times. At the time, Harris was making the awkward transition from child star ("Doogie Howser, M.D.") to adult actor, but the ovewhelming impression given by the story was that he was still young -- a director who had worked with him attributed one Harris comment to "the kid in him."

Imagine my consternation when I picked up a copy of the NYT and saw the artist formerly known as Doogie referred to in my story as "Mr. Harris." I shouldn't have been surprised; I knew the Times "Mistered" every man unless he was a criminal or an athlete -- or a long-dead historical figure. But still: Mr. Harris? It was the '90s equivalent of "Mr. Bieber."

Now Slate reports that the NYT, in a hurried memo after the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death, dropped the honorific "Mr." from his name. The memo didn't provide an explanation, but presumably Bin Laden was simply too evil for the conventions to be honored. It's true: "Mr. Bin Laden" sounds as ridiculous as "Mr. Harris" did 13 years ago. But once the principle of exception for immoral figures is created, where do you stop -- or start? (The NYT was able to finesse the issue of Moammar Kadafi by referring to him on second reference as "Col.") Slate reports that the NYT referred to Saddam Hussein as "Mr."

The obvious way out of this dilemma is to abolish what are called courtesy titles, as this newspaper has done. But that would sap some of the stateliness from the NYT, which prides itself on its taking newsmakers (and itself) seriously. Still, it might be worth it if the NYT doesn't want to convene a continuing court to determine who is eligible for a dishonorific.

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Debate: Is it appropriate to rejoice at Osama bin Laden's death?

-- Michael McGough

Illustration: Jonathan Twingley / For The Times

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