Why does MSNBC call Bill Ayers "Willie"?

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Earlier today, MSNBC ran this chyron:

MSNBC 'Willie' Ayers

"Race gets personal: Willie Ayers & Keating 5 are latest topics on trail."

But Ayers' name isn't "Willie" Ayers, it's "William" Ayers. Or "Bill" Ayers. Nobody calls him "Willie."

So what's with MSNBC's chyron? Maybe they were just trying to save space? No, that can't be it - "Willie Ayers" takes up more screen real estate than "Bill Ayers." Strange.

Strange enough that we can't help recall another "William" who became "Willie" during an election year: William J. Horton. Kathleen Hall Jamieson has explained:

Although his given name is William, he calls himself William, court records cite him as William, a July 1988 Reader's Digest article identifies him as William J. Horton, Jr.,and press reports prior to the Republican ad and speech blitz name him "William," the Bush campaign and its supporting PACs identified the furloughed convict as "Willie" Horton. Even the crusading anti-Dukakis newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for its expose on the furlough program consistently identifies Horton as William Horton or William Horton, Jr. When the Maryland man who was stabbed by the furloughed convict contacted the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, he too referred to Horton as William Horton. In his account of the attack in the PAC ad, however, that man, Clifford Barnes, instead identifies the convict as "Willie" Horton.

One might trace the familiar "Willie" to the naming practices of slavemasters, to our patterns of talk about gangsters, or to the sort of benign paternalism that afflicts adults around small children. Whatever its origin, in discussions of murder, kidnapping, and rape, "Willie" summons more sinister images of criminality than does "William." After all, it wasn't J. "Eddie" Hoover who hunted down "Alphonse" Capone. And during his trial, the person to that point known as Willie Smith was identified by family and attorney as either William or Will. After his acquittal on charges of rape, the family reverted to the name by which he had been known before the trial.

The televised PAC ad titled "Weekend Prison Passes," as well as the PAC ads featuring Horton's victims, all refer to him as "Willie Horton." When his mug shot appears on the screen of "Weekend Prison Passes," the name under it reads "Willie Horton." Reporters reduced Dukakis on crime to the Republican sculpted image of "Willie Horton." In news reports, "Willie" Horton's name was mentioned more often by reporters than by George Bush or any of his representatives. Use of dramatic, coherent narrative increases the likelihood of recall. Once the Horton narrative was embedded in public consciousness, mention of his name should have been sufficient to evoke the entire story.

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