September 19, 2009 in Features

Sorry excuse for an apology

High-profile mea culpas often fall flat and require a second - and sometimes third - attempt
Jocelyn Noveck Associated Press
Associated Press file photos photo

In this Sept. 13 file photo, Kanye West takes the microphone from Taylor Swift as she accepts the “Best Female Video” award during the MTV Video Music Awards.Associated Press file photos
(Full-size photo)(All photos)


Serena Williams, who lambasted a line judge at the U.S. Open tennis tournament: “I don’t remember anymore,” she replied, when asked what she said.

Kanye West, who took the microphone from singer Taylor Swift during her award acceptance speech and credited Beyonce with a better video, wrote on his blog: “I’m soooo sorry to Taylor Swift and her fans and her mom,” but added: “Beyonce’s video was the best of this decade!!!”

Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, following his now infamous cry of “You lie!” as the president was speaking to Congress, called the White House and apologized to Obama through his chief of staff but later qualified his apology by saying that party leadership had asked him to apologize.

A congressman flouts decorum and heckles a president in the House chamber. A tennis player profanely offers to shove a tennis ball down the throat of a line judge. A singer shakes up an awards show by boorishly dissing a young country star.

And then, in a public ritual we’ve come to expect as surely as the rising sun, they apologize.

Well, actually, they begin to apologize.

Because in the latest incarnation of high-profile mea culpas, it seems that a new style of apology has taken hold: the multistage, multinews cycle apology.

If at first you don’t succeed, there’s always time to try it again. And again.

Let’s start with Serena Williams, the supremely talented tennis player who had a McEnroe-style meltdown recently when a U.S. Open line judge called a foot fault at a crucial point in her semifinal match with Kim Clijsters.

At first, Williams showed little remorse for her profane outburst.

“I don’t remember anymore,” she replied when asked what she’d said. Asked if the linesperson deserved an apology, she said: “Well, how many people yell at linespeople?”

A day later, in a statement put out by a public relations firm, she acknowledged that “in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly.”

Still, people noted, there was no actual apology. Another day later, before her doubles final, it came.

“I want to amend my press statement of yesterday,” Williams wrote on her Web site, apologizing to the lines judge, to Clijsters and “to tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst.”

To psychologist Mitchell Abrams, Williams’ apology was the most sincere of the three.

“Sure, no doubt there’s damage control involved here,” says Abrams, who specializes in sports psychology.

“But Serena was in mid-competition, and it’s her intensity that makes her such a superb athlete. She did something wrong, she took it on the chin, and moved on.”

It probably would have behooved Williams to apologize directly the first time, just as it would have behooved West to apologize to Taylor Swift in a more direct way, says veteran public relations executive Ken Sunshine.

For anyone who was vacationing on Neptune over the weekend, West interrupted the 19-year-old Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards to say Beyonce should have won instead.

“He probably should have called her immediately,” says Sunshine, who has represented a long list of celebrities and politicians. “It’s the first cardinal rule of PR crises: React quickly. Don’t make it look like you’re out trying to hire someone like me.”

As it happened, West – whose boorish behavior earned him the rare distinction of being branded a “jackass” by President Obama – first apologized on his blog, where he said “I’m soooo sorry to Taylor Swift and her fans and her mom,” but added: “Beyonce’s video was the best of this decade!!!”

Then came Monday’s premiere of “The Jay Leno Show,” where West took a very long pause when Leno asked what his late mother, Donda, would have said. He called his action “rude, period.”

The next installment: a call to Swift after her appearance Tuesday on “The View.”

To at least one analyst, all the public mea culpas are excessive.

“He owes Swift and her family an apology – that’s all,” says Todd Boyd, professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California.

“Does he owe you an apology if you’re watching him on TV? I don’t think so.”

To Boyd, celebrity public apologies – from Michael Richards to Mel Gibson to Isaiah Washington to Don Imus – have become such a cliche, it’s hard to tell if any of them are heartfelt:

“Even when someone is sincere, it often seems empty because we’ve seen so many of the same things previously.”

Which leads to Sunshine’s second cardinal rule: Don’t overreact. Don’t make a transgression seem worse than it was, by apologizing again and again.

“The problem is the news cycle is now, like, 12 seconds long,” says Sunshine. “You have so much instantaneous media, it’s hard not to overreact, and you end up having 17 apologies on 12 TV shows.”

That’s not the problem of Rep. Joe Wilson, who infamously cried out “You lie!” as the president was speaking on health care to a joint session of Congress – a setting infinitely more serious than a tennis court or an awards show.

Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, called the White House the same night and apologized to Obama through his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. He also apologized in a written statement.

But he later qualified his apology, in the view of many, by saying that party leadership had asked him to apologize.

“That’s like a parent saying, ‘Tell your brother you’re sorry,’ and then you’ve apologized,” says Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist and author of “Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior.”

Wilson has declined to apologize again on the House floor, saying that the president has accepted his apology, and “the issue is over.”

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