News Column

Onion's Fast Apology Correct

Feb 26, 2013

Rem Rieder, USA TODAY

The Onion made a really bad mistake. Its nasty tweet about 9-year-old actress Quvenzhan Wallis during the Oscars was so far beyond the pale as to be almost unimaginable.

Wallis' splendid performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild and her nomination for Best Actress was one of the season's feel-good stories. To spoil it with a nasty tweet, complete with the c-word, for no apparent reason, was just dreadful.

For the most part, The Onion is a national treasure, spoofing the nation's conventions and sacred cows with great cleverness. This tweet was completely unfunny and mystifying in addition to being off-the-charts offensive.

But then the satirical newspaper did something really classy, and really smart. It apologized. Not half-heartedly, not with weasel words, but with an actual apology that said powerfully, "We screwed up big time. And we're sorry. And we're going to make sure we don't do it again." It did so relatively quickly, the morning after the disaster. And the apology came directly from the top guy.

Here's how it read:

"Dear Readers,

"On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhan Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive -- not to mention inconsistent with The Onion's commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

"No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

"The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

"In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

"Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.

"Sincerely,

"Steve Hannah

"CEO

"The Onion"

Hannah's response was spot on. (Disclosure: We were editors together at the then-Milwaukee Journal in the late 1980s.) It was right morally, journalistically and strategically. When you're wrong, owning up to it is the best thing you can do. No one (except maybe Bradley Cooper and Charlize Theron) is perfect. People make mistakes, even egregious ones. They can't be unmade.

If you look like you are ducking responsibility, in addition to being reprehensible, you compound the problem. But if you take it seriously, own up to it and vow to do better in the future, people will tend to cut you a break. It does nothing but improve your credibility.

Too often, when news outlets and politicians and celebrities screw up, they cop to it and/or apologize, but only sort of.

Really off-putting is when someone has made a clearly offensive remark but rather than stating the obvious, trots out the lame "I'm sorry if I offended anyone." That happens way too often. It just can't compete with, "I was wrong, and I'm sorry, and it won't happen again."

Or someone will try to defend an indefensible position. For example: CNN and Fox News screwed up on the U.S. Supreme Court's big decision last year on health care reform, reporting that it had been overturned, when in fact it had been upheld. CNN, to its credit, quickly admitted its mistake. Fox, on the other hand, tried to defend an indefensible position, deploying such gobbledygook as "Fox reported the facts, as they came in."

Years ago, when The New York Times went off the rails reporting on alleged spy Wen Ho Lee, it admitted overreaching in a tortured, grudging "From the Editors" note in September 2000. The paper did much better in 2003, when it forthrightly confronted plagiarism and fabrication on the part of onetime wunderkind Jayson Blair. The following year, then-USA TODAY publisher Craig Moon apologized on behalf of the paper after a fabrication and plagiarism scandal involving reporter Jack Kelley.

Then there's that Watergate staple, "mistakes were made," the passive voice seeming to absolve the speaker, in this case, then-President Nixon, of responsibility.

One thing about mistakes: They are made. And when they are, The Onion's approach is the way to go.



Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013


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