Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to President Trump, really, really likes to be called “Dr. Gorka” — a hang-up for which he was mocked last week by comedian Samantha Bee.
On Twitter, Gorka goes by “Sebastian Gorka DrG.” He put “Dr.” in his byline at Breitbart News, where he was the national security editor before joining Trump's White House, and on his book, “Defeating Jihad.” Gorka, who has a PhD in political science from Corvinus University of Budapest, prefers to be identified as “Dr. Gorka” in news reports.
Only some media outlets acquiesce.
Gorka gets his title on Fox News and in the Daily Caller, Conservative Review and Gateway Pundit. But mainstream news outlets generally refuse to attribute the “Dr.” prefix to anyone who is not a medical doctor.
The L.A. Times was writing, at the time, about the “Dr.” status of someone on the other side of the aisle: Jill Biden, wife of then-vice president Joe Biden, who has an EdD from the University of Delaware. Here's an excerpt:
Joe Biden, on the campaign trail, explained that his wife's desire for the highest degree was in response to what she perceived as her second-class status on their mail.
“She said, 'I was so sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden. I wanted to get mail addressed to Dr. and Sen. Biden.' That's the real reason she got her doctorate,” he said.
Amy Sullivan, a religion writer for Time magazine, said she smiled when she heard the vice president's wife announced as Dr. Jill Biden during the national prayer service the day after President Obama's inauguration.
“Ordinarily when someone goes by doctor and they are a Ph.D., not an M.D., I find it a little bit obnoxious,” Sullivan said. “But it makes me smile because it's a reminder that she's her own person. She wasn't there as an appendage; she was there as a professional in her own right.”
Journalist Mark Oppenheimer, who has a PhD in religious studies from Yale, wrote a magnificent takedown of “Dr.” usage in the New Republic in 2014, following the death of Maya Angelou, who had been awarded several honorary doctorates and preferred to be called “Dr. Angelou.”
“We use titles,” Oppenheimer wrote, “just to honor our supposed betters: Queen Elizabeth, Sir Paul McCartney. As an American and a democrat, I think this usage is stupid, un-American, and best left overseas.”
I asked David Sullivan, assistant managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and vice president of the American Copy Editors Society, about newsrooms' practice of limiting “Dr.” to physicians. Here's what he told me:
I don’t know the history of it. But I suspect the style probably explains it: “Because the public frequently identifies Dr. only with physicians. …” Our stylebook says pretty much the same thing.
When we revised our rules on honorifics a decade ago, restricting them to obituaries, we said that an individual can be known in death as they were known in life, “Dr.,” “Chief,” whatever. We did this in large part because it is common to refer to African American clergy as “Dr. Smith.” What we have found, however, is that when we screw up and refer to the holder of an academic doctorate as “Mr.,” we get a lot of complaints from other Ph.D.s about how we have insulted the deceased (and, I assume, themselves).
In stories, we try hard now to say “Joe Smith, a physician,” rather than just “Dr. Joe Smith,” although we do skid sometimes.
In Gorka's case, the “Dr.” title represents something of a proxy battle between the conservative media and the mainstream. It's not really about the label; it's about whether Gorka, who bills himself as a counterterrorism expert, is a credible authority — and, by extension, whether Trump really has surrounded himself with “the best people,” as he pledged to do.
Outlets such as The Washington Post and New York Times have reported that “Gorka” or “Mr. Gorka,” is not highly regarded by his peers.
“Most counterterrorism experts dismiss Gorka's ideas as a dangerous oversimplification that could alienate Muslim allies and boost support for terrorist groups,” The Post reported in February. “Religious scholars are equally withering.”
According to the Daily Caller, such reporting amounts to a “smear campaign.” The Conservative Review wrote that “the media are targeting Dr. Sebastian Gorka for political assassination.”
In the conservative media, Gorka is most definitely a “terror expert,” as Fox News host Tucker Carlson introduced him on a November telecast. And he is “Dr. Gorka.”