When Mr. Smith became Smith


ABOUT 10 YEARS ago this month, the sort of debate that could rage only at a newspaper or a magazine or in academia was renewed at this newspaper.

The issue was courtesy titles, as in mostly whether to call men Mr. and women Mrs. or Ms. The debate had been taken up earlier in the newspaper's history, but not for about four decades by the time I came to it.

At the time, all men and women over 18 in The Sun's pages were identified in second reference as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. There were exceptions. In the sports pages, courtesy titles were not used. Anyone convicted of a serious crime was stripped of title. This placed hoodlums in the same set as sports heroes, but that was not why the debate resumed.

It started this time over a series of articles ordered up by John S. Carroll, then editor, and worked on by two reporters, Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The series was about a gang of Honduran government thugs, trained and equipped by the CIA, who had tortured and murdered suspected leftists in the 1980s when Central America was the focus of President Ronald Reagan's flight against communism. Mr. Carroll assigned me to edit the series.

Mr. Cohn started it. I cannot recall his exact words, but they were something like this: "We can't call these people 'mister'! They're terrible people." So the question was, would the villains of the story lose their "misters" in the newspaper that had "mistered" Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and, more recently, Slobodan Milosevic of the former Yugoslavia?

Mr. Cohn won. All of the people in the Honduras stories - good and bad - lost their titles in second reference.

The rest of the newspaper continued with courtesy titles - except, as always, on the sports pages - but the Honduras series had renewed the general debate about them. Mr. Carroll asked John E. McIntyre, then and now head of the copy desk and keeper of The Sun's style, to look into it. That meant Mr. Carroll wanted to get rid of the courtesy titles. Upon arrival at the paper in 1991, he had brought up the matter with Mr. McIntyre. Thus in 1996, the deed was done. In the news section of The Sun, everyone henceforth would be treated the same as crooks and baseball players.

Except for people who were being buried or excoriated (or endorsed) in The Sun. The obituary page, the editorial page and the op-ed page (right here) continue with the titles.

The average reader may not have noticed the change. But the debate inside the building was heated. A file kept by Mr. McIntyre contains copies of the messages sent to him on this issue, which appears to have been decided before the comments were solicited.

"I'm deeply disappointed that The Baltimore Sun no longer feels the need for a little courtesy," wrote one veteran reporter and former foreign correspondent. " ... I'm also dismayed at the cynicism of asking for comment after the decision has been made."

"By giving up courtesy titles, The Sun is giving up some of its civility," wrote an editor and former foreign correspondent (not I). "There is nothing gained, but much is lost."

"Bravo," wrote a reporter. "It is very difficult to explain to readers why some people get courtesy titles and some don't; why some folks get them, lose them and get them back."

The writer had in mind former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who in the course of his conviction, then overturned conviction, reconviction and absolution, lost and regained his Mr. over and over.

But my favorite passage from the McIntyre file is from Mr. McIntyre himself, laying out the new rules with all the exceptions, just to prove the inanity of the whole issue.

"Use titles of royalty or nobility on first reference. Because titles of royalty and nobility are alternate names, the arcane and archaic principles for representing the names of royalty, dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, barons, baronets and knights continue to apply. ... Be grateful that we mostly write about commoners."

Take that, hon!

G. Jefferson Price III was a foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun.

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