At several points during the Obama presidency, there have been controversies surrounding how people in the media should refer to President Obama. Many supporters of our nation's first black president bristle when they hear him referred to simply as "Obama," or "Mr. Obama," even on second reference. The preferred formulation of news organizations has always been to use the honorific in the first reference in an article, then use the last name only for the rest of the piece, and they've almost uniformly reacted to this sensitivity with a mix of thinly-veiled pique and condescension.
But there's no argument that calling Obama by his last name only at a press briefing, without a first reference, is anything but a sign of disrespect, at best. That's why an exchange between The Washington Examiner's Susan Crabtree and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, at Tuesday's daily briefing, was so jarring. In asking Earnest about the president's remarks at the Easter Prayer Breakfast, and whether the president plans to put a stop to ISIS beheadings by appointing an ambassador-level envoy for religious minorities, Crabtree did it four times (Update: Crabtree has since apologized):
Can you rule out -- going back to the Cuba issue -- can you rule out that you’re going to -- the State Department is going to announce its decision on the terrorism list -- state-sponsored of terrorism list this weekend and whether Obama is going to sit down with Castro for any type of meeting?
On the Christian issue this morning, Obama’s comments. I’m wondering if you -- when you had a meeting with him, whether you asked him about what he was referring to.
Sure, but more to my point, there is an opening for a Christian -- an envoy to Christian and other religious minorities in the Middle East. It’s been open since last summer, since Congress passed the bill calling for Obama to appoint the opening, the envoy. Why has Obama decided to leave that position open for this time period when we have ISIS executing Christians at an alarming rate in the Middle East?
The exchange stood out enough that I commented about it in Tuesday's article, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Playing to your audience is quite a common thing in the White House briefing room (I certainly do it), but that level of disrespect seemed really out of place, and I could not recall another time when a reporter had done it. Even famously right-wing White House correspondents adhere to this basic rule of respect. World Net Daily's Les Kinsolving was fastidious about using the president's honorific, even calling him the Commander-in-Chief when he asked Jay Carney about bestiality. Even The Daily Caller's Neil Munro, famous for heckling Obama, called him "the president" while he was heckling Josh Earnest:
In fact, a review of White House daily briefing transcripts shows that most reporters never even call him "President Obama." In every one of Earnest's briefings, instances of the word "Obama" occurred between zero and five times per briefing, and most of those were as parts of the phrase "Obama administration," or "Obamacare," or in a few cases, as part of a pairing with another world leader, such as "Obama/Putin phone call."
Most of the rare occurrences of "President Obama" were spoken by Earnest. Reporters overwhelmingly refer to Obama as "the president," up to 100 times each briefing. On three occasions, Fox News reporters referred to the President as "Mr. Obama" on second reference. Twice, The Hill's Justin Sink has referred to "Obama" when directly quoting someone else. On two occasions, reporters used "Obama" in a first reference, then referred to him as "the President" on second reference. Only twice did a reporter use "Obama" on second reference.
In fact, the only other instance of a first reference to "Obama" and no reference to "the President" came from, shockingly, conservative Daily Mail reporter Francesca Chambers, asking about the last prayer breakfast.
To flout such a basic convention in the middle of the White House briefing room is, at best, unprofessional, and at worst, a base appeal to an audience that doesn't respect the president. I suspect it's the latter, because Crabtree has been around for a long time, and obviously knows better. She came to the conservative paper from TPM, and before that, was with The Hill for many years. She's not a newbie, and just because she thinks The Washington Examiner's readers will like it does not make it okay. Here's hoping someone straightens her out, because whether you like a president or not, they're still the president when you're in that room.
Update: Francesca Chambers responded on Twitter that the slip was unintentional, which I believe. Here's our exchange: