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!
Here’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.
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.
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.
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.