Note: this story has been updated to include the New York Times' response.
The New York Times' coverage of Osama Bin Laden's death raised eyebrows on Monday due to the fact that the paper did not refer to him as "Mr." But, in a memo, the paper said that the omission is not the precedent-shattering move it appears to be.
Romenesko reported on a memo sent to staffers by associate managing editor Tom Jolly. "At Jill and Bill's request, we dropped the honorific for Bin Laden," the memo said in part, referring to Jill Abramson, the paper's managing editor, and Bill Keller, its executive editor. And, indeed, Bin Laden is referred to as simply "Bin Laden" in the Times' coverage.
It is a common tradition of the Times that everyone--from the worst criminals to the most revered heroes--is referred to with some kind of honorific (whether "Mr." or "Ms." or "Dr." or many others) in its hard news pages. The parameters of the rule (it used to not be bestowed on criminals, for instance) have shifted somewhat, but when Bin Laden was not referred to as "Mr.," many in the media made note of the fact.
However, in another memo—this time from Phil Corbett, the keeper of the Times' stylebook flame—the paper said that it drops the honorific for the dead all of the time, and not, as some had speculated, when the subject is especially distasteful:
We pretty typically omit courtesy titles for "historic" figures who are dead -- i.e., we don't say Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Hitler, Mr. Einstein. Even more recent figures like Kennedy or Reagan are frequently used without a courtesy title and treated as historic rather than news figures. There's no hard-and-fast rule for when we do it. In this case, with a big package in the works, the decision was made to go ahead and make the change right away. Part of the consideration may have been the overall tone of the coverage -- nor was anyone likely to make the argument that we were being "disrespectful" to Bin Laden.
This would seem to sew the matter up, but it still leaves the question of why, exactly, the rule is practiced so inconsistently, especially when public figures as varied as Elizabeth Taylor, Saddam Hussein, Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson were all given honorifics in the coverage of their death.