Goodbye, (Mr.) Terrorist

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

By Stayton Bonner

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 TimesIn 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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