When I was a young reporter I had an editor who was a stickler for getting people’s middle initials correct in news stories.
“If you get the name wrong, there’s no reason for anyone to trust anything else you write,” he’d say.
An extreme position? Maybe, but it is journalistic bedrock that getting names right really matters.
Which is why it was so instructive – if utterly predictable – to watch Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s handling of Kamala Harris’s slightly challenging first name on his prime-time show Tuesday, hours after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden named the senator from California as his running mate.
Not only did Carlson mispronounce it, but when a guest went out of his way to politely correct him, Carlson had one of his trademark fits of pique.
The exchange went like this:
“Tucker, can I just say one thing?” said Richard Goodstein, an adviser to Democratic campaigns.
Carlson: “Of course.”
Goodstein: “Because this will serve you and your fellow hosts on Fox. Her name is pronounced ‘comma’ – like the pronunciation mark – ‘la.’ Comma-la.”
He went on: “Seriously, I’ve heard every sort of bastardization of her -,” and then Carlson broke in: “OK, so what?”
With his familiar mocking laugh, Carlson demanded to know what difference it made if he pronounced it KAM-a-la, with the first syllable like “camera.” Or Ka-MILL-a. Or, properly, Comma-la.
And who cares, Carlson wanted to know, if he made an unintentional error about it?
Goodstein retorted with the obvious: “Out of respect, for somebody who’s going to be on the national ticket, pronouncing her name right is actually kind of a bare minimum.”
The key words there are “out of respect.”
Carlson’s reaction shows he has no interest in such a thing when it applies to Harris, who made history Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, as the first woman of color to be named to a presidential ticket.
Here’s the thing: It’s really not that hard to get Harris’s name right.
I was pronouncing it wrong myself until sometime last year when a friend corrected me. (The friend happened to share the candidate’s ethnicity, in part, but that certainly wasn’t the only way to find out. Harris goes out of her way in her 2019 memoir to explain the pronunciation, also using the hint that it’s like the punctuation mark.)
A little embarrassed then, I hope I haven’t said it wrong since.
We get names right if we care enough to. Announcers and fans have figured out how to pronounce the name of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo – arguably a little more challenging than Kamala Harris.
And when you act like proper pronunciation doesn’t matter – or isn’t worth bothering to learn – that sends a strong message.
Diversity consultant Mita Mallick wrote in Fast Company about feeling intense pressure from childhood on to change her real first name: Madhumita.
It plagued her into adulthood. When one supervisor decided that it would be more convenient to call her “Mohammed” at every opportunity in the workplace, she knew what was really going on: “When my boss created this new nickname for me, that served as a form of bullying and harassment.”
In time, and on the strong suggestion of a career counselor, she started using Mita, despite her pride in her actual given name.
In Carlson’s case, he used his guest’s correction to begin one of his typical rants. Making a fuss over her name, he argued, only proves how Democrats don’t want Harris challenged in any way at any time.
That wasn’t Goodstein’s point, nor should it be. Of course, Harris should be evaluated on substance.
He was merely suggesting a modicum of respect, just a basement-level floor a decent person wouldn’t sink below.
But for Carlson – who specializes in race-baiting, mockery and smarmy nastiness – there’s no such thing.