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“Deflategate,” Fox News, and frats: this year in public apologies

Since publishing Sorry About That a year ago, I’ve been trying to keep track of apologies in the news. Google sends me a handful of news items every day. Some are curious (“J.K. Rowling issues apology over slain ‘Harry Potter’ character”), some are cute (“Blizzard 2015: Meteorologist apologizes for ‘big forecast miss’”), and some are sad (“An open apology to my kids on the subject of my divorce”).

A good apology meshes moral awareness and social repair work. As your mother probably told you when you were a child, you must say what you did wrong and sincerely express that you are sorry. In the best possible case, you are able to say what will be different in the future and make some restitution or other corrective action. A weak apology often fails to identify the harm done, perhaps because it is too embarrassing to name. Instead of actually apologizing for something, people may just say that they were wrong or that they have regrets—or, if they are really casual about things, offer the phrase, “My bad.” Weak apologies can also suffer from excessive explanation, blame-shifting, and excuses. “I apologize,” someone will say, “but…” How genuine have public apologies come across this year so far? Let’s take a look at some of the noteworthy ones from the first part of 2015.

In January, Fox News found itself apologizing for its reporting on alleged “no-go zones” in England and France, issuing a series of retractions and corrections. Summing it all up, Fox anchor Julie Banderas said, “Over the course of this last week, we have made some regrettable errors on air regarding the Muslim population in Europe.” She catalogued the mistakes and ended by saying, “We deeply regret the errors, and apologize to any and all who may have taken offense, including the people of France and England.”

“Benedict Cumberbatch” by Sam (Honeyfitz). CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Also in January, actor Benedict Cumberbatch apologized for using the word “colored” when discussing the opportunities for black actors in the United States and the United Kingdom. Cumberbatch told People magazine,“I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done. I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive.” Cumberbatch pointed out that he felt ashamed and foolish and that he “apologize[d] again to anyone who I offended for this thoughtless use of inappropriate language about an issue which affects friends of mine and which I care about deeply.”

Both Fox and Cumberbatch rely on the stock phrasing of apologizing to anyone who was offended, but Cumberbatch does a much better job of indicating his embarrassment and articulating why it was important for him to apologize. Fox, on the other hand, merely regrets the errors without chagrin or reference to what should have been the case journalistically.

February began with another journalistic apology, this one from NBC anchor Brian Williams for misstatements about his involvement in a ground fire incident in Iraq. On his Nightly News broadcast, William said he “made a mistake” in recalling events. “I want to apologize,” he added. “I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.” Williams characterized his remarks as “a bungled attempt” to thank veterans. His statement failed because he was unable to give the transgression any better name than a mistake, resulting in an incomplete, impersonal apology. Williams might have done better by addressing the possibility that self-promotion was a motive rather than honoring veterans, but that would have been a harder statement to make.

Also in February, Alex Rodriguez, baseball player for the New York Yankees, issued a short handwritten letter “to the fans” in which he said he took “full responsibility for the mistakes that led to my suspension” and offered “regret that my actions made the situation worse than it needed to be.” He added that “I can only say I’m sorry” and that he was ready to put this behind him and return to baseball. Despite writing out his apology long-hand, A-Rod was unable to convey sincerity since his apology lacked any real reflection and discussion about his suspension, just references to “mistakes” and a “situation.” February was a bad month for apologies.

"Alex Rodriguez" by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
“Alex Rodriguez” by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

In March, expelled University of Oklahoma student Levi Pettit, the 20-year-old videotaped leading a racist chant at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, apologized. Pettit began by saying that he was “deeply sorry” for the pain his actions caused. He noted that what he had said in the chant was “mean, hateful, and racist” and that there were “no excuses” for his behavior, adding that he would “be deeply sorry and deeply ashamed of what I have done for the rest of my life” and was committed to being a different person in the future. Pettit’s apology was successful not just because of its naming of what he had done and would do in the future, but because he delivered it together with African American leaders from Oklahoma, showing a willingness not just to apologize publicly, but to face some of those he had harmed by his words and actions.

In April, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana apologized further for last November’s story “about a University of Virginia student’s account of her alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house. Dana officially retracted the story, saying “We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.” Dana’s apology, and that of Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the retracted story, didn’t just acknowledge mistakes but also identified that harm caused by their poor reporting—the effect on other and future victims of rape.

May was notable too for an apology that did not come—from the New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady. Following the release of the Wells report, which concluded that it was likely that Brady knew that staffers were deflating footballs, the four-time Super Bowl winner merely said, “I don’t have really any reaction,” adding that he had not had time “to digest it fully but when I do I’ll be sure to let you know how I feel about it.” We’ll see what the future brings for Tom Brady.

Then again, we still have six months left in 2015, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the rest of the year brings in the way of good and bad public apologies.

Image Credit: “Sorry” by Alexa Clark. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

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