Everyone wants to be called a doctor, but not everyone wants to go to medical school.
That seems to be part of the reason behind the public discussion about whether Jill Biden, the wife of President-elect Joe Biden should be called “doctor” even though she does not have a medical degree.
Part of this dust-up is based on different interpretations of how to use established titles, but part of this medium-warm debate is based on charges of sexism, prejudice, the value of one advanced academic credential over another, and old vs. new interpretations of long-accepted styles guides in traditional journalism.
This isn’t Anatefka, but in traditional journalism, the established Associated Press Style Guide that is commonly taught in journalism schools says that the title “doctor” is used for medical doctors, not Ph.Ds.
A Ph.D., a Doctor of Philosophy, is one who holds a doctorate in an established academic field of study. These are awarded to post-college graduates, who often do years of advanced study and produce a thesis that is then presented to a jury of other recognized academics in the same field as the applicant who determines its academic validity and original merits.
In the case of Jill Biden, she holds two master’s degrees and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Delaware in January of 2007.
Northwestern University’s Journalism School Answers
So what is the best answer to this little debate?
It may come from non-other than the dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Northwestern has taken a major position in this debate since one of its lecturers, Joseph Epstein (no relation), wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal saying that Jill Biden should not be called a “doctor.” While his reasons were different than just one of the titles, he raised the basic question about whether Jill Biden should carry the “doctor” title.
Unfortunately, some in the English Department at Northwestern said this was a sexist position for some reason. That seems extreme. It was also odd that the well-known Northwestern journalism department did not jump into this considering that it would be great publicity and that the debate has its origins in the AP Style Guide.
According to Charles Whitaker, the Dean of the Medill School of Journalism, the answer to the question of titles is more flexible today than in the recent past.
According to Dean Whitaker:
“What we teach students in Medill is to abide by whatever style manual guides the publication or news outlet for which they happen to be working. In many instances, though not all, that is AP.
“The AP stylebook discourages the use of ALL courtesy titles for anyone, including medical doctors. After first reference, subjects are to be referred to by the last
“Other publications, most notably The New York Times, use ALL courtesy titles, including Mr., Ms., Mrs., and Dr., depending on the preference of the subject.
“Still, other publications, such as Ebony magazine, where I worked for over a decade, and The New Yorker, use a combination of AP and their own style guides, where Mr. & Mrs. are not used, but Dr. is applied to both physicians and Ph.Ds, but in apposition, the distinction between medical doctor and scholar has to somehow be made clear.
“So in essence, what we teach is that the prevailing stylebook of your workplace is the ultimate authority on this matter, and that should be your guide.
Charles F. Whitaker (he/him/his)
Professor & Dean
Too Many Degrees and Titles?
So, as Dean Whitaker says, ‘the distinction between medical doctor and scholar has to somehow be made clear.” The print and broadcast media may have violated their own rules in this case, if they even have a style guide in the first place.
My bet is that cable news networks do not have style guides, so they just picked up on the “Doctor” Jill Biden title and never even considered whether it was correct.
Many cable TV broadcasters are not too concerned about these title debates, but the title of “doctor” for the incoming First Lady has much more weight than the current first lady who has no college degrees and is better known for being a former topless model.
These contrasts certainly have a role in this discussion, but they would not be discussed publicly.
So let’s say this discussion is really about the changing of the guard at the White House, or more precisely the changing of the First Lady at the White House who we all agree has advanced college degrees, is a recognized educator and author. These are all things the American public has not seen in the last four years.
And with that said, we can agree that the Biden administration values education, science, public health policy, rational debate, facts that can be verified, trust in the scientific method, and the voracity or mathematics and common sense. Scientists working in the White House will believe in the existence of germs, contagious diseases and that men walked on the moon.
So, maybe this whole thing centers on whether real titles in government mean something again. In the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain was both a Wizard and a travelling professor who never earned a formal degree. But this is not to say the Wizard had great human insights, knew right from wrong and what was valuable in life.
Jill Biden has an advanced degree in eductaion, but she is not a medical doctor. So, if you want medical advice go to Dr. Fauci, not Doctor Who or Doctor Dre.