Columnists > Voices

Apologizing in public

A straightforward admission always beats a creative dodge

Issue: "Darfur," Nov. 25, 2006

Matt Ristuccia writes in this week's issue that confession and repentance should accompany thanksgiving. That's true, and when we confess to God we should also, when appropriate, apologize to those we have offended.

With that in mind let's take a stroll through My Bad, a collection by Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin (Bloomsbury, 2006) of "25 years of public apologies," including some in which an offender examined his own heart.

Two cheers for "Marconi," a fired Portland, Ore., radio shock jock, for apologizing in 2004 after he played a tape of the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq and laughed about it: "I have become so numb to the horrific things that happen in this world that I sometimes forget there are still people who feel."

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Two more for George Taylor, a California judge who in 1994 cut in half the support payments Barry Bonds owed to his family and then, after the hearings, requested Bonds' autograph. Taylor responded to criticism by saying, "It was the wrong thing to do and I simply won't make excuses."

Compare those statements with Jesse Jackson's apology in 1984 for an anti-Semitic remark: "If in my low moments in word, deed, or attitude, through some error of temper, taste, or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived someone's fears, that was not my truest self. If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head, so limited in its finitude, not to my heart, which is boundless in its love for the entire human family."

What?

Requests for human forgiveness should be directed straightforwardly to the individuals sinned against. When photos of Jimmy Swaggart going into a motel room with a prostitute surfaced in 1988, his comments were as right as his conduct was wrong. Swaggart told his Baton Rouge congregation, "I do not plan in any way to whitewash my sin or call it a mistake. I call it a sin. I beg your forgiveness." He told his wife, "I have sinned against you and I beg your forgiveness." He told his fellow televangelists, "I have made your load heavier and I have hurt you. Please, please, forgive me."

Those who are caught should not plea bargain. When NBC in 1993 used footage of dead fish from another forest to illustrate a report about endangered fish at Clearwater National Forest, Tom Brokaw intoned, "We regret the inappropriate video to illustrate what was otherwise an accurate report." Accurate? He and others knew very well that in a video medium evocative footage is worth more than a thousand words. Brokaw also noted that other footage used of apparently dead fish was also "inappropriate," since the fish were alive and had just been stunned for testing purposes.

It's not adequate to say, when criticized, I was just kidding. In 2004 a columnist for the British Guardian, Charlie Brooker, called President Bush a "drooling, blinking, mouse-faced little cheat" and asked, "John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckly Jr.-where are you now that we need you?" The Guardian said his comments were "an ironic joke."

It's also too bad when people to preserve their political or job status have to pretend they didn't mean what they meant. In 1996 then-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) called President Clinton "an unusually good liar," but later said, "It was an unfortunate remark that once it's in print it looks a lot worse than it actually was." Three years later WFTV-Orlando news anchor Steve Rondinaro noted as Hillary Clinton arrived at an event, "There she comes, the old battle-ax." He later said, "I have the highest respect for the first lady."

Nor do two wrongs make a right. In 1990 a spokeswoman for First Union National Bank in Charlotte commented on an article in the bank's newsletter that began, "The Huns and Nips are at it again! Fouling up our capital markets." She said, "It was not our intention to speak in a derogatory way about the German and Japanese people." Hmm, what way was that?

The right way is the simple way: an address to the offended human party and to God as well. "I was wrong. Please forgive me."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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