SorryWatch was down for techie reasons unclear to your tech-clueless hosts. It’s back now. So here are a couple of news stories we coulda-shoulda-woulda weighed in on earlier.
1. The case of Lisa Bonchek Adams, Twitter and the Kellers. The must-read summary is this one, by Zeynep Tufekci, who clearly shows that Emma and Bill Keller, in using their respective media platforms to criticize a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams for tweeting about her Stage IV breast cancer, showed a lack of understanding of how Twitter works and a lack of Reporting 101 research. Keller Feller’s issues were semi-addressed in the NYT’s ombud column, which noted issues with “sensitivity and tone,” but didn’t go nearly far enough in pointing out the basic flaws in Keller’s journalism. Further, the headline, “Readers Lash Out About Bill Keller’s Column About a Woman With Cancer” was itself pretty slanted, making it seem that the Public Editor agrees with Keller’s perspective that the people who objected to the column were knee-jerk crazies without a deep understanding of Serious Journalism (oh wait, sorry, I meant users of Twitter, which “as a medium encourages reflexes rather than reflection,” as Keller augustly informs us).
Meanwhile, Girl Keller’s column was taken down from the Guardian’s web site, and the Guardian’s ombud noted that there were numerous factual errors in it. Said ombud, Chris Elliott, also noted that Girl Keller should have told Adams, who had no idea she was direct-messaging with Girl Keller for publication, that she was going to be quoted. Elliott noted that on January 10, Keller amended her piece to say, “I have already said I regret not giving [Adams] notice about the use of her DM [Twitter direct message] where she told me that it mattered to her that there would be lasting memories about her. I continue to regret not giving her notice about the piece. In the circumstances it would have been the compassionate thing to do and Lisa deserved that.”
Elliott and other media folks have termed this an apology. It is not an apology. The phrase “I regret” is not equivalent to “I apologize.” Regret is a feeling of sadness over something that has been done. It is about self, not other. It is passive, not active. Apology, on the other hand, is about reaching out to someone else to right a wrong, actively expressing those feelings of regret and taking concrete steps to make amends. Neither Keller has apologized. This blog is called SorryWatch, not RegretWatch; if any apologies are forthcoming we’ll note them. But for now, please everyone let’s refrain from saying that Emma Keller has apologized, kthnxbai.
Someone who DID apologize well about this subject is Peggy Orenstein, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, whose first-person writing about breast cancer is a paragon of what first-person journalism is supposed to be. (IMNSHO.) In a post entitled “140 Characters Isn’t Enough to Say I’m Sorry,” she explains why she initially tweeted her support of Bill Keller’s piece, then explains where she went wrong.
I was wrong, stupid and insensitive to not read Lisa Bonchek Adams herself before promoting Bill Keller’s editorial. The internet is often a reactive place, and although I try to resist that impulse, to think before I tweet, I messed up. I hit the send button without doing the research I should have based on something in his piece that did resonate quite strongly with me —the idea that the American medical establishment prioritizes quantity over quality of life in end-of-life care. I didn’t much think about the personal example being used to make that point, just assumed he was right (and you know what happens when you assume….).
After she read Adams’s backstory and got more information, she realized she’d been precipitous. She explains her connection to Emma Keller (who was menschy to her in the past) and concludes:
I was wrong not to do my due diligence. And I apologize, again, to Lisa Adams, her followers as well as my own followers and readers for that. One of the unsettling parts of the internet is that you can’t take things back. I would have done this differently. It’s a lesson learned.
Well done. Couldn’t ask for better.
2. The site Grantland ran a piece about a woman scientist who invented an amazing putter. The journalist, Caleb Hannan, uncovered the fact that the inventor, called Dr. V. in the piece, was born with male genitalia. Dr. V. who was publicity-shy, hadn’t wanted to cooperate with the piece, but when Hannan promised her he’d focus entirely on her golf invention, she agreed to be interviewed. But when Hannan dug and found that Dr. V was trans, she begged him not to publish that fact; he demurred. In October, she accused him of intending to commit a hate crime, then killed herself. Grantland published the piece in January.
To its credit, the site responded quickly and thoroughly to the resulting outcry. It ran a piece from a trans sportswriter and advocate pointing out everything the story had done wrong. The site’s editor apologized in a long letter that acknowledged errors — it expressed comprehension of the sin, humanity and humility we haven’t yet seen from the Kellers. As a writer, I appreciated the way the editor, Bill Simmons, refused to throw Hannan under the bus; he took his own share of ownership. He flat-out says he and his staff should have had the piece vetted by someone with a clue about trans issues. He talks about how he pushed Hannan to dig more into Dr. V.’s history. This is good.
But there’s one screechingly terrible line in the piece: “My condolences to Dr. V’s friends and family for any pain our mistakes may have caused.” MAY HAVE? MAY HAVE? Please. This is how-not-to-apologize 101! It’s the “sorry if,” the passive voice, the “not my intent” — it’s half a Bad Apology Bingo card. (Also, “any pain”? She killed herself. Pretty sure there was some pain, dude.) Presumably the lawyers were all over that line and told Simmons not to accept responsibility for legal reasons. But if you can’t genuinely say “I’m sorry for causing Dr. V’s family and friend pain,” don’t torture that sentence into some wimpy half-assed version of itself. Cut it. You’re an editor.
There is more bad. The fact that everyone on staff is young is not an excuse for screwing up this badly. The fact that the reporter told one of Dr. V’s investors that she was trans was a huge sin, not one easily shrugged off by “he didn’t know what he was doing.” That’s not journalism; that’s making yourself a character in the story at the expense of your protagonist. Finally, Simmons or someone on staff should have picked up on Hannan’s “she’s a MAN BABY” immature Austin-Powers-y tone. The piece would still have been powerful and quirky if Hannan had reported merely that Dr. V. had falsified her academic and professional credentials, but adding that gender-gotcha, and using that ewwww-a-girlyman tone, added a whole extra bombshell level of zhuzh, and Simmons had to know it. The apology expresses that Grantland fucked up, and that’s commendable. But it still comes off as somewhat disingenuous.
3. A person who plays the football yelled a thing at a person with a microphone after doing a thing that led to winning a game that was apparently significant. (Just imagine me wearing this shirt as I type this blog, OK?) Bellowing football person apparently said he was sorry afterward on the Twitter. (“I apologize for attacking an individual and taking the attention away from the fantastic game by my teammates. …That was not my intent.”) Here is my expert opinion: Football person did not have to apologize at all. He yelled into a microphone. The person holding the microphone was not scared or upset; she was thrilled because she knew she was getting some fabulous television. Which is her job. Afterward she told USA Today, “You expect these guys to play like maniacs and animals for 60 minutes, and then 90 seconds after he makes a career-defining, game-changing play, I’m gonna be mad because he’s not giving me a cliché answer? ‘That’s what Seahawks football is all about and that’s what we came to do and we practice for those situations’? No you don’t. That was awesome. That was so awesome. And I loved it.” [Editor’s note: I disagree with the way USA Today punctuated the quote, so I changed it, and I do not apologize, so there.]
Frankly, I can’t believe people were actually upset at this gentleman. He didn’t cheat. He didn’t play dirty. He didn’t threaten a journalist. He merely got fired up about doing his job, and doing it well, against a rival with whom he apparently has history (“a lion doesn’t concern himself about the opinions of a sheep,” he said of this rival, and hello, that is a delight of a quotation). The microphone-holding person points out that uncontrolled, un-cliche-filled braying is precisely what a reporter on the sidelines of a game dreams of. “They usually take a minute, and that’s why we grab them right after games, because we hope they lose their minds like that,” she said. “We hope he does the same thing at the Super Bowl. We don’t want a watered-down version of him.” Indeed. I am baffled. Were people upset because a large, sweaty black man was yelling in the vicinity of a young blonde woman? Are you going to make me get into semiotics of racism on this wee apology blog? Please no. Do we actually want athletes to talk to reporters the way Crash taught Nuke to respond to journalists in post-game interviews in Bull Durham? Richard Sherman, you put your head down and you play the game and God willing everything will work out. And please don’t start answering reporters’ questions like that. Because THEN we’d ask you to apologize.
UPDATE 1/24: New video shows that immediately after the play, Sherman approached Crabtree with his hand out to shake, saying “Helluva game.” Crabtree shoved him in the face mask and kept walking. Around 50 seconds later, Sherman did the bellowing interview with Erin Andrews, then returned to the field to graciously hug other opposing players. In the aftermath of all this, the Stanford-educated Sherman noted (look, a press conference in which he was mellow and used big words!) that he was perhaps over-exuberant, but hi, he was on a football field (“I wasn’t committing any crimes, doing anything illegal — I was showing passion during a football game”). He also noted that it’s telling how often he was called a thug (Deadspin noted that the word thug was uttered 625 times on American TV the day after the Seahawks’ win), pointing out, “it seems like it’s an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now.” Agreed.