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That’s DR. Biden to You by Sarah Jaffe

February 4, 2009

(Originally posted on GlobalComment) Vice President Joe Biden’s biography became a campaign tool when he joined the Obama ticket this past summer. Then-Senator Biden’s no-bull attitude meshed well with the story of the father who took the train home from Washington, D.C. every night to be with his kids after the death of his wife and daughter. Biden’s second and current wife, Dr. Jill Biden, got less attention at first. While Michelle Obama was occasionally controversial (for such pseudo-issues as making more money than her husband), Jill Biden was rarely mentioned. A Vogue story profiled her, along with the rest of the women in the close-knit Biden clan, and Steve Clemons wrote enthusiastically about her when Joe Biden was announced as Obama’s running mate. I admit to having a bit of a fascination with Jill Biden after I heard that she was a Ph.D. One of the best personal recommendations for Joe Biden (as well as Barack Obama) was that he was married to a woman who was smart, successful, and independent–and he wasn’t threatened by it. Not so, says the Los Angeles Times. Early Monday morning, I read an article on Dr. Biden in the LA Times titled, at the time, “Hi, I’m Jill. Jill Biden. But please, call me Dr. Biden.” The subhead was “The vice president’s wife holds a doctorate in English — but she likes to use the prefix that most people reserve for medical doctors.” Not only was it factually inaccurate–as a later edit of the story, now available on the site, explains–but it was condescending, sexist, and unnecessary. The article was edited, not only to reflect the reporter’s mistake in Biden’s degree, but to include a less confrontational headline and tagline. At press time, the article was qtitled “Jill Biden, doctor of education, is back in class.” The tagline now reads, “The vice president’s wife, who holds a doctorate in education and has been teased for going by “Dr. Biden,” is teaching two college classes. Biden is thought to be the first second lady to hold a paying job while her husband is in office.” The article focuses, not on Jill Biden’s various accomplishments or her personal life, but on quoting various “experts” on whether it is appropriate for Biden to use the term “Dr.” to refer to herself. As a graduate student and teaching assistant, I’m used to questions about what one calls one’s professor. My students call me by my first name, but I’m not even an MA, yet. However, if I go on to a PhD, I will certainly expect to be referred to as Dr. Jaffe. The degree I’m currently working on is in journalism, so despite my lacking in an honorific-worthy title, perhaps I can explain a few things to the Los Angeles Times. Using “some” as a source is inappropriate in a news story. As in, “. . . in campaign news releases and now in White House announcements, she is “Dr. Jill Biden.” This strikes some people as perfectly appropriate and others as slightly pompous, a quality often ascribed to her voluble husband.” “Some people” is inaccurate and vague. Which some people? Where? The reporter’s Aunt Sally? The guy muttering under his breath on the bus? The reporter goes on to end a paragraph about other accomplished “second ladies” with the notation that Lynne Cheney, also a PhD, went by “Mrs. Cheney.” This is irrelevant, and implies that Lynne Cheney is doing the correct thing while Biden is overreaching her place. Women academics are used to this lack of respect. I spoke to my own “some people” on the subject, specifically, Dr. Carolyn Kitch, head of the PhD program in Mass Media and Communications at Philadelphia’s Temple University. “Students (at all levels) commonly refer to the male faculty as ‘Dr.’ (even those who are not PhD’s) and to the female faculty either by first name or ‘Mrs.’ I’m the director of our school’s doctoral program–so wouldn’t it stand to reason that I myself hold the degree? Yet I routinely receive queries about the program (from potential applicants) addressing me as ‘Mrs. Kitch,’ or by my first name.” Kitch continues, “A couple of years ago I asked one (female) doctoral student why she always called me Carolyn but called her advisor, another faculty member, Dr. Maynard. She said, ‘Oh, I could never call him anything else! But, you know, you’re just like a regular person.’” Regular person or no, a PhD is a title that requires years of hard work, even if that hard work is put in studying communications, English, or education, as Dr. Biden did. Yet the LA Times seems to think that one’s doctorate (yes, that’s the title of the degree) is only worthwhile if one is a medical doctor. The reporter didn’t take the time to find “some people” like Dr. Kitch to quote on the issue, instead, quoting Estela Bensimon, a professor at the University of Southern California, as saying that she didn’t care about the title. “Also, just think if you were on an airplane and you called yourself doctor and there was an emergency,” the paper quoted Bensimon saying. This ridiculous suggestion, that a person with a PhD in education might be stuck trying to revive a person with a heart attack because there might be some confusion about their title, only serves to overprivilege the medical doctor at the expense of degrees in the humanities. The reporter goes even further, though, dredging up the fact that apparently people have been investigated for “title fraud” in Germany and the EU for using the honorific “Dr.” However, the reporter doesn’t see the contradiction in the fact that the title fraud was not for non-medical doctors using the honorific, but for people who have earned their doctorate outside of the EU. The article also snidely digs at Biden’s community college teaching experience, after discussing her new position at the Northern Virginia Community College, ending the discussion once again with a question about what Dr. Biden wishes to be called in the classroom, and focusing on what she will be paid rather than what kind of work she will be doing. I have to wonder, if we were discussing a male academic who taught at a prestigious Ivy League university, the reporter would feel the need to spend the entire piece debating whether he deserved the prefix “Dr.” The article’s dismissive tone is symptomatic of the way the media treats women, particularly accomplished women in the public eye. Jill Biden has several advanced degrees, and yet chooses to teach in a community college, helping students who often cannot afford to attend school full-time. This is worthy of respect, not a quibble over whether she deserves the title as much as someone who stitches up wounds, treats skin conditions, or performs nose jobs. But it also underlines the problems with much of newspaper reporting today: it relies on “experts” rather than information, it presents multiple opinions within a narrow range and purports them to be representative of the culture as a whole, and it focuses on ginned-up controversy instead of the actual story. It took me two minutes to find an “expert” who outlined the other side of the story. The Times could’ve done its research. Instead, they went to press at first with a story that was not only offensive, but contained factual errors. No wonder newspapers are dying.

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