SorryWatch v. Apology Watch cage match!

In which SorryWatch winds up bleeding and blinking on the mat, staring up at the sneering face of the New York Times business section, barely remembering its own name!

Steel-cageHere’s what happened. On Tuesday, the @nytimes Twitter account asked for crowdsourcing help for a new New York Times blog called Apology Watch, which would look at apologies (and non-apologies) of public figures and analyze their goodness or not-goodness. How familiar!

The blog would be written by business writer Andrew Ross Sorkin in collaboration with a business consultant named Dov Seidman. Sorkin wrote, “Public apologies demand a corresponding public engagement, and I hope that this column and subsequent ones will be a catalyst for a healthy, vigorous and insightful debate.” Oh, us too!

Sumac sent a note to the paper’s Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, alerting her to the existence of this blog. Both of us are fans of her work keeping the NYT on its ethical game, though both of us have noted that when she missteps (as she did with Bill Keller’s “Ew, Undignified Unseemly Cancer Lady” column), it’s often social media that trips her up. Sumac wrote to Sullivan:

Apology Watch? SorryWatch? Sounds familiar. Twitter tag “ApologyWatch? Sounds like our Twitter tag, “SorryWatch,” doesn’t it? Two writers analyzing apologies. Why, that’s hauntingly reminiscent of SorryWatch.

Among recent apologies Sorkin cites are Governor Christie’s apology, which we covered, and Tom Perkins’s apology, which we covered.

We realize that it’s possible that Sorkin or Seidman thought of this idea independently. But minimal research, such as the research that must have been done to determine whether the name “ApologyWatch” was taken, will have brought them to our site. [Note: a search for "Apology Watch" before the NYT site launched would show SorryWatch on the first page.] Yet there is no mention of our existence in Sorkin’s piece.

With the prestige of the New York Times behind it, “Apology Watch” is likely to harm SorryWatch. Certainly the similarity in names will confuse readers.

Since we do not possess a flux capacitor and therefore cannot go back in time to a pre-Sorkin-announcement era, we asked for public acknowledgment of SorryWatch’s existence on Apology Watch, as well as an apology. Our semi-wee but fiercely loyal audience began tweeting and Facebooking in support. Within a day, we got two responses to Sumac’s email, one from Sorkin’s editor and the other from his collaborator.

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Neither “sorry not sorry” email answers our central issue — the fact that we were there first, and the fact that their new venture could damage our old one. (We weren’t nuts about the arrogant, condescending tone, either. My 12-year-old daughter observed, “I think they would have spoken more respectfully to you if you were male.”)

What’s especially galling is that this new blog supposedly approaches apologies as a moral issue. That makes their refusal to acknowledge our existence publicly while inviting us to join THEIR conversation distressing. Even if Sorkin had failed to do the basic due diligence of GOOGLING HIS OWN BLOG’S NAME, as he claims, and therefore had no idea SorryWatch existed, the Times’s no-soup-for-you attitude is irksome. One might also hope that a writer who has faced accusations of not giving credit where it’s due in the past would be more generous. (Alas, this morning we heard from Margaret Sullivan, declining to tackle our case, saying she accepted the editor’s statement. She added, “It’s not unusual for similar ideas to emerge in a cultural context like this one, and I believe that’s what happened here.”)

Fine, let’s say Sorkin didn’t Google his own blog name. Let’s say it doesn’t bother the NYT (what with them being the NYT and us being but a teeny tiny mob of scribbling women) that this new venture could squash SorryWatch’s traffic and search placement like a bug. What about simply saying you’re sorry because we were there first and we’re hurt and angry and you are responsible for that hurt and anger?

About that. We’ve written here before that lawyers, doctors and businessfolk are often drilled in avoiding the words “I’m sorry,” because they’ve been taught that apologizing = admitting liability. In practice, though, apologies often make people feel better, meaning that they don’t sue in the first place. (But suing? Us? Pssh. We’re not talking legality. We’re talking morality.) Sorkin and Seidman come from a business background, and the NYT is a CYA culture, both of which could explain these folks’ reluctance in saying two simple words that would make other humans feel better.

And making people feel better is the point of apologizing. The point of apologizing is not to short-circuit bad publicity or limit your liability or save your business or promote yourself. That’s the world Seidman lives in, and while it’s nice that being ethical could be tied to making you more money, it’s not the point of ethics. Sorkin and Seidman would do well to think about apology as a purely unselfish gift to others, not just as a butt-covering, image-enhancing move. And refusing to apologize is awfully crappy footing on which to start an apology blog. It sure doesn’t bode well for an apology blog coming from a business-mindset place.

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Yesterday I explained why I was so bummed to my mom, a professor of education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, whose field is moral education and who had come over to take my daughter to Hebrew School (tl;dr: JEWY JEWY JEWY JEWY). Her first reaction: “Two Jewish boys should know better!” Her second reaction: In Jewish law (which I’d thought someone named DOV SEIDMAN would know, but I see that he’s Israeli, which can mean more secular than mayonnaise, so no, perhaps not) there is a concept called “hasagat gvul”– basically, “boundary encroaching.” It comes from a passage in Deuteronomy in which God instructs the Israelites: ”Do not remove thy neighbor’s landmark.” As Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger explains:

This mitzvah is not hard to understand: we are not to move property markers in such a way that one person’s land is increased at the expense of his or her neighbor’s. Although the verse speaks of the Land of Israel as its place of application, the moral idea behind it is understood to apply universally. The idea of “encroaching the boundary” is even understood to regulate unfair competition.

Basically Judaism is a lot stricter about moral responsibility than American law. I’d like my coreligionists to mensch the hell up.

Sumac and I get that we live in a free enterprise system. (GO CAPITALISM WHOO.) We do not claim to own apologies — we’ve always given props to Harry Shearer, who reads apologies on the air on his radio show, and to Retraction Watch, a blog that focuses on science journal retractions and is so awesome I was forced to write about it in Beastie Boys lyrics.

But look, we have been doing SorryWatch for nearly two years. Pre-blog, we’ve both written extensively about apology. (Here’s a piece Sumac did on apology for Salon back in 2001; here’s one Snarly did for The Jewish Daily Forward in 2003.) We’re established journalists: I’m a columnist for Tablet magazine and a frequent contributor to the NYT Book Review who has written for every ladymag under the sun; Susan is a NYT bestselling author who has written for Discover, The Guardian, Smithsonian and Wired. We do this blog because the subject has long been potent and meaningful for both of us. We’re sick of calculation and arrogance, of non-apologies and showpologies. But hey, NYT business boys, you do your thing. We’re Tesla and you’re Edison. We get it.

And no, we aren’t interested in “joining the dialogue” — the one we’ve been leading for almost two years. At least, not until we get an apology.

PS. Our friend Patrick DiJusto would like to know what it sounds like when Dov cries.

PPS. Hm. According to Dov’s web site and speaker’s bureau bio, Fortune magazine calls him “the hottest advisor on the corporate value circuit.” I wanted to link to the source when I quoted that, and found that the exact quote doesn’t exist, but there’s a similar one in a not-entirely-flattering piece that ran in Fortune in 2010. (“Virtue is supposed to be its own reward, but according to an emerging line of thought, it’s profitable too…the kind of object lesson that permeates the gospel of Dov Seidman, a Los Angeles-based management guru who has become the hottest adviser on corporate virtue to Fortune 500 companies.”) The same delicious piece points out: “He resembles a younger, less pumped-up but equally relentless version of Arnold Schwarzenegger — picture the Terminator with a toothy grin and an expensive suit, quoting Aristotle and Kant while fielding nonstop calls on his BlackBerry.” Oh, we are definitely picturing that.

So should we hold our breath waiting for a link and an apology?

Sincerely, Snarly and Sumac. 

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34 Responses to SorryWatch v. Apology Watch cage match!

  1. sumac says:

    I am not feeling delightful, Snarly. How about you?

  2. :paula says:

    I refuse to believe the people responsible for those emails would ever write anything I felt like reading. Dorks.

  3. Anita says:

    The no-good bastards…

  4. vard says:

    First of all, The New York Times should be ashamed of itself. If they could partner with fivethirtyeight they can partner with sorrywatch. I’m just sayin’

    Second, Patrick DiJusto is a genius.

  5. 10,000 X agree, and let’s cut straight to the Free Market Response to this Lord Of The G-Strings “great minds think alike” equivalent. As a consumer of blogs and an eminently monetizable pair of eyeballs, what can I do? (For example, retweeting all ApologyWatch blats with SorryWatch links that are way way better?)

    Plus, (hate to bring it up, lest I sound like I have an axe to grind, but) can I just say how teeth-grindingly right Snarly Jr. is about the woman thing? This makes me especially eager to show them that they will rue the day they didn’t do the honorable thing.

  6. What vard said! The NYT wasn’t able to see a fortuitous opportunity for partnership. Does it now? Surely there’s other appropriation that Mr. Sorkin and Mr. Seidman could engage in and leave this particular field to the established experts.

  7. Jack Taylor says:

    “Hasagat gvul” is my new favorite concept. Is there a term for irony? Because the Times is wallowing in it. BTW, if JK Rowlings can apologize to Hermione for ending up with Ron, I think the Times – a brand that earns far less annually – could pony up some moral responsibility.

  8. Josh Gordon says:

    The right thing of course would have been to invite you two to be part of the NYT blog family. Silly people. And if they can’t apologize, how can they watch apologies? And if they’re too stupid to search to see if the name is in use, yikes. I don’t think they’re that stupid; I think they’re being loose with the truth.

  9. Katie says:

    This makes me feel SO GRRRRRRR.

    You are completely right about the refusing to apologize because it might mean a confession of liability. It is so short-sighted, of so many organizations. I’d expect better from the New York Times but NO. And I also think that 12 year old is right about the sexism thing. Which MORE GRRRRR.

    I remain ever true to your David against this cloddish Goliath!

  10. Reva Basch says:

    Totally derivative, whether intentional or not, and obnoxiously presumptuous on their part. You go, SorryWatch!

  11. Implantation of behavioral adjustment chips inside the very fabric of their beings shall cease such feckless behavior.

  12. marjorie says:

    Heh, last night my husband Jonathan noted, “Hey, I swear Dov Seidman had a Wikipedia page a a couple of days ago and now it’s gone!” I am wiki-clueless, so I asked a tech-savvy friend (I am the Judith Newman of Wikipedia, but without a Wikipedia page) to see what had happened. And heh. Deleted for this:

    G11. Unambiguous advertising or promotion
    Main page: Wikipedia:Spam
    Pages that are exclusively promotional, and would need to be fundamentally rewritten to become encyclopedic. If a subject is notable and the content can be replaced with text that complies with neutral point of view, this is preferable to deletion.

  13. tanita says:

    Well, crap.
    I’d say this is unbelievable, but no – it’s perfectly believable. Just really craptastic.
    Don’t forget: we all know Edison was an effin’ thief.

  14. Miriam says:

    Wow! They are being silly. I am very glad that a friend sent me to your wonderfully written and very funny site. “Hasagat gvul”…now if only I could pronounce that!

  15. Nancy Robinson says:

    Sigh. I’m always Team Tesla, especially when Tesla is a vampire. Andrew Ross Sorkin and Dov Seidman, however, just suck. I hope SorryWatch watches their sorry ass.

  16. carol gould says:

    In any case, there’s a good chance Dov and Andrew and hopefully others on the NYT team are reading your blog post right now!

  17. Pingback: On Apology, Reactiveness and Twitrage | SorryWatch

  18. tree says:

    your spam control made me do math! that is just cruel.

    but anyway, i saw this linked on twitter and came over to have a read. and now i’ll be staying, so you can +1 to your semi-wee readership (although i’m pretty sure the equation semi-wee +1 still equals semi-wee). the NYT can have their dudebros. i mean everyone knows edison was kind of a douchebag, right?

  19. FWIW I shot a note to On The Media on this. There’s a chance I suppose they’ll pick it up. Or maybe their TLDR blog will.
    Meanwhile, and I hate to say this, but if you know a friendly IP lawyer you might want to have a chat about the trademark piece of this. I am not one but I do know that one of the peculiarities of trademark law is that even just deciding “it’s the @#$% New York Times, we can’t afford to even thing about fighting them” and letting things run their course can lead to losing your rights even in the SorryWatch name that you’ve both done such great work to build, not just against ApologyWatch, but against any subsequent copycats as well. There may be nothing you can afford to do, but it’s surely worth a conversation, and I’m betting there’s a friend or a friend of a friend in the SorryWatch world who is an ace on this stuff and would give you an hour or two of advice.

  20. Pingback: SorryWatch vs. Apology Watch in Gawker

  21. Susie F. says:

    I am ready to get my virtual pitchforks and flaming torches. Outrageous. Me, I’d want more than an apology for the boys taking your toys and running off with them.

  22. Ken says:

    Well, I haven’t seen the NYT blog yet, but having now seen yours, I’m bookmarking it for daily reference.

  23. Guilty Bystander says:

    Sorkin doesn’t deal in remorse or accountability. As chief corporate apologist (with Goldman Sachs money backing DealBook), his idea of an apology is a full-throated defense of his patrons’ best interests. Their ApologyWatch won’t be looking for any mea culpas from Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein. In Sorkin’s view, they have absolutely nothing to apologize for. Speaking Truth to Power? Nah, Sorkin speaks PR for Power.

  24. Lolo says:

    Silver lining? I had never heard of this blog before. I read the NYT piece on Apology Watch and thought, ‘neat concept, but it’s a shame their writing style is so stuffy and lacking in original analysis.’
    BUT – because of this controversy, I found this blog on Twitter. I love the style, the wit, the intelligence, the unique perspective. I will now bookmark it.
    So maybe you won’t get crushed by NYT after all. Just keep being excellent.

  25. anon says:

    Just a hat tip from another stranger who just found you through the Gawker piece about the rip-off column.

  26. Tom says:

    (thnk god for calculators!)
    Hey, Kids.
    Kisses!
    Competition is good. You. Will. Crush. The NYT!

  27. Pingback: Oy, Dov. Oy, LRN. | SorryWatch

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