Update: A Season of Remarkable Apologies

November 8, 2013
Category: Archive

Editor’s Note: This story was updated following Sunday night’s “60 Minutes.”

We have just witnessed one heck of a string of remarkable public apologies. And all of them fell flat for different reasons.

We’ve gotten apologies from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama and the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford — and now, CBS’s venerable “60 Minutes” finds itself apologizing for hanging a story on the reputation of a source who lied about his actions on the night of the attack on a U.S. embassy compound in Benghazi, Libya.

CBS took two swings at the apology, once Friday morning and again Sunday night. Anybody who hoped the Sunday night version of the apology might explain how America’s favorite news program went so far off track was sorely disappointed. There was no explanation, there was no assurance of how this kind of thing would not happen again, there was nothing except an apology buried in the last moments of the program.

So let’s look at this sorry week of regrets as case studies of how to apologize and how not to.

The Ruined Apology

Toronto Mayor Ford didn’t cough up an apology until he had denied wrongdoing again and again. When he did finally blurt out the truth, he said, “So I wasn’t lying, you didn’t ask the correct questions.” Hours later, he tried again, this time actually apologizing: “With today’s announcement I know I embarrassed everyone in the city and I will be forever sorry. There is only one person to blame for this, and that is myself. I know that admitting my mistake was the right thing to do.”

Twenty-four hours later, that apology was ruined by a newly released video of the mayor threatening to kill somebody during a drunken rage. Nothing says contrite like a death threat. He apologized for that one, too.

The ‘Save My Job’ Apology

What can you say when you are the head of the federal agency that was supposed to launch Obamacare signups, one of the crowning achievements of a presidential administration, and you manage to sign up six — yes, six — people on the first day? Not 6,000 or 6 million, but six. You say, “I’m sorry.” But if you mean it, you say it on the day your agency makes the mistake, not almost a month later like Secretary Sebelius did.

The ‘Not Quite an Apology’ Apology

On Thursday, President Obama almost apologized for the Obamacare signup debacle. He told NBC’s Chuck Todd he regrets that some people have lost health-insurance coverage: “I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me.” That might be more of a “feeling of regret” than an actual “apology,” which usually includes some statement about what one did wrong and what one will do to correct it.

The Actual Apology

CBS News set the standard for how to apologize when Lara Logan went on the air Friday morning and said that “the most important thing to every person at ’60 Minutes’ is the truth, and today the truth is we made a mistake.” She went on to say: “It’s very disappointing for any journalist, it’s very disappointing for me. Nobody likes to admit they made a mistake, but if you do, you have to stand up and take responsibility and you have to say that you are wrong. And in this case, we were wrong.”

So far so good. Logan indicated on Friday that CBS would have more to say on Sunday. Maybe “60 Minutes” would show the depth of its contrition by leading the program with a retraction, a full examination of how it allowed Dylan Davies, the manager of Benghazi’s hired force of security guards, to hoodwink them. Davies had given different accounts of his whereabouts on the night of the attack in an “incident report” and in testimony to the FBI. Maybe “60 Minutes” would explain how it failed to notice that in October 2012 the Telegraph carried a report saying Darryl Davies, a very similar name, identified as the manager of the Benghazi contract, wasn’t even in the city on the night of the attack. Fox News reported the day after the “60 Minutes” report that it spoke with the same source, Davies, but cut him off when he asked for money.

And then there is the matter of the source’s book. CBS’s subsidiary was publishing a book written by Dylan Davies, a book that CBS mentioned while somehow leaving out the name of the publisher. CBS still has not explained why it didn’t mention the conflict of interest. Logan didn’t mention that conflict Sunday night. It was not for lack of time. The show had plenty of time to run what essentially was an advertisement for Go-Pro cameras earlier in the hour. Did the publishing arm influence CBS’s interest in the Davies’ story? Is that how they got access to him? It is the kind of question “60 Minutes” would ask of an interviewee it was grilling. But all of those answers will have to come from somebody else. CBS explained nothing.

The Ingredients of a Really Good Apology

Act Like You Really Mean It: I felt awful for Logan when I saw her apologizing Friday on CBS’s “This Morning.” She seemed sincere, didn’t play word games and didn’t dodge responsibility. The hosts asked her good questions and she answered them.  But when she offered an even less forthcoming and shorter apology Sunday night, it is difficult to take the “60 Minutes” apology seriously.

I was hoping Logan would confront Davies the way Ira Glass confronted that lying liar Mike Daisey when he misled “This American Life.” Glass dedicated an entire program to explaining how the story went so wrong.  Heck, Oprah Winfrey was tougher on another liar, author James Frey, who misled Oprah into endorsing his book. Oprah seethed and roasted Frey because she said she had been betrayed and as a result, she betrayed her viewers who bought Frey’s book. Oprah was tougher on Frey than “60 Minutes” has been on Davies. And remember, Davies’ comments quickly wound up in Congressional debate. This was no tiny lie. It is no tiny show. It is “60 Minutes.”

If you want people to believe you when you apologize, use active verbs.   President Obama ruined his “I am sorry people are finding themselves…” comment by using the wrong verb. Solid apologies include active verbs, not passive ones. “I screwed up” is different from “mistakes were made.”

I am also troubled by CBS’s decision to take the original story off the Internet. It is a way of sanitizing the problem. The public should be able to review how much of the “60 Minutes” story included the now-discredited source. Of course, the discredited story would have to be clearly labeled as such so the misinformation doesn’t live on.

Promise It Won’t Happen Again: Mayor Ford finally perfected his apologetic language when he said, “I want to be clear. I want to be crystal clear that every single person, these mistakes will never, ever, ever happen again.” But he didn’t take the second step of saying what he would do to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. President Obama and Secretary Sebelius can’t make the promise yet, so they will continue to get pounded.

Explain How You Will Fix Things: On Sunday, CBS could have explained what it intends to do to be certain it won’t get burned by a lying source again. It offered nothing.

Even Mayor Ford went further than CBS when he said he is “considering” treatment.

When we screw up in a big public way, the public wants solid proof or at least an explanation of what we will do to be sure the process in place won’t fail again. The public wants to know that we won’t keep screwing up.

Stop Making the Same Mistake: The public has a long history of forgiving mistakes. Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, David Letterman and John Lennon all rebounded from things they did or said once they apologized and took responsibility.  But you don’t get to keep making the same mistake again and again. Ask Anthony Weiner.

“60 Minutes” has the advantage of decades of extremely high performance in its favor. The only way it can hold others to a high level of scrutiny is if it allows itself to be held to that same standard.

President Obama says he takes “responsibility” for the Affordable Care Act debacle. That’s a start, but the problem isn’t fixed and he can’t run for re-election. So it is of little consequence for him to say that.

Taking responsibility involves more than taking blame. It implies that you will make things right. By burying a tiny little apology at the end of a program with no real explanation of how it got the story wrong, “60 Minutes” missed an opportunity to show all journalists how to stand up, take the lumps and get the story right. Give Oprah a whack at Mr. Davies. Maybe she can get to the bottom of this mess.

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