Saying They're Sorry: News Media Apologia Strategies
University of South Alabama
Department of Communication
Mobile, AL 36688
[log in to unmask]
Submitted to AEJMC 2003 Annual Meeting, Critical and Cultural Studies Division
Saying They're Sorry: News Media Apologia Strategies
Six prominent news media apologies offered between 1981 and 1998 are
examined to determine strategies used. The apologiae are criticized using
rhetorical theory. Reactions to each apologia are assessed. Sincerely
admitting mistakes, showing regret for them, and correcting them because it
is the right thing to do, and announcing long-term corrective actions to
prevent reoccurrences are basic requirements for successful media apologia.
Saying They're Sorry: News Media Apologia Strategies
"If anybody has a whip, I'll take my shirt off and beat myself until I'm
-- CNN founder Ted Turner
Ted Turner was sincerely mortified, and his characteristically dramatic
statement, partially quoted above, proved it. As vice chairman of CNN's
parent company, Time Warner, Turner was in the unenviable position that
several news media executives have faced in recent years: Responding to a
calamitous error or deceit committed by reporters on their staffs. Few,
unlike Turner, resorted to graphic mortification – an ethically appropriate
response to a gross moral infraction. All, however, offered to correct the
policies, procedures, and failures that led to their organization's
shame. Some successfully defended their news media institutions; others
were less successful. This paper examines apologies offered by
high-profile news media organizations in an attempt to clarify the
characteristics of appropriate and successful journalistic mea culpa.
Between the Washington Post's embarrassing apology in April 1981 for
publishing "Jimmy's World," Janet Cooke's fabricated Pulitzer-Prize winning
feature story, and 1998 apologies by Time magazine and CNN for presenting a
badly sourced investigative story accusing the U.S. military of using
poison gas in Laos during the Vietnam War, individual journalists and news
organizations issued several high-profile apologies for mistakes,
deceptions, misjudgments, plagiarisms, and lies. To some observers,
this represented a break from the news industry's past, when it was
reluctant to issue apologies or even corrections (Shepard, 1998, June;
Flint, 1933, p. 179). Press critic Alicia Shepard (1998, June) has written
that "More and more news managers are adopting a philosophy that goes
something like this: We are putting out a daily product under fierce
deadline pressures. Mistakes are inevitable. No longer will we pretend we
are infallible; we're not." The reason for the attitude change apparently
has been editors' and news executives' newly acquired understanding that
apologies and corrections are crucial to maintaining their news
Because these news media mea culpa primarily are written or broadcast to
attempt to recover a tarnished reputation, they can be situated within the
classical rhetorical genre of apologia.
Whether an organization faces an accident, scandal, product safety
incident, or charges of irresponsibility, one ingredient that every
apologia has in common is the fact that it has ritualistic underpinnings;
circumstances in which, like in a religious context, companies face their
wrong, deal with the problem of their guilt, and seek restoration back into
the community (Hearit 1999, p. 4).
Hoover (1989) defines apologia as "a genre of public address, a 'family of
speeches' in self-defense, or more broadly as a genre of communication, a
process that may include an 'on going' attempt to repair reputation" ( p.
235). Hearit (1996) points out that an apologia is not an apology, per se,
though it may include one, "but a defense that seeks to present a
compelling, counter description of organizational actions" (p.
234). Likewise, when individual journalists make the apologies, they are
seeking to explain their actions in a manner that will allow them to save face.
Additionally, there are ethical dimensions to offering apologies that make
demands on the journalist or news organization. Moral philosopher William
David Ross (1930), a Kantian, lists among his prima facie duties that of
reparation for wrongs done (p. 21). Likewise, virtue ethics philosopher
Alasdair MacIntyre (1984) writes of a person's duty to explain himself to
others, to provide an accounting, and to be held accountable (p.
180-183). For journalists, giving apologies can seen as a matter of
fairness, another recognized newsroom virtue. Flint (1930) argues that one
must make apologies out of a policy of fairness in the coverage of the news
and admonishes editors that "The fifth order of errors, and the most
serious, is the one calling not merely for correction but for
apology. Here again the real fibre (sic) of the editor's soul is put to
the test" (p. 180-183). Consequently, sincere acknowledgement of mistakes
and making genuine apologies can be seen as a moral requirement for news
organizations. Indeed, the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of
Ethics includes the requirement that journalists "admit mistakes and
correct them promptly" (spj.org/ethics_code.asp).
Even though news media apologia has ethical and rhetorical dimensions,
they have received little attention from researchers. Most of the analysis
of modern apologia analyzes public address by politicians, church leaders,
and other public figures (Jackson, 1956; Linkugel and Razak, 1969; Ling,
1969, July 25; Ware and Linkugel, 1973; Ryan, 1982; Kruse, 1981; Butler,
1972). Little has been written on apologia by mass communication
professionals, though Hearit (1996, 1994, 1995a,1995b) has
examined apologia as a public relations strategy for corporations in
studies that have relevance to news media corporations. Hearit (1996)
asserts that apologia in public relations occurs only when there is a
"compelling need to respond, such as when important publics view charges as
valid and offer a subsequent challenge to the status quo . . ." (p.
234). Unlike other apologia scholars, Hearit (1996) takes a dissociation
approach to corporate apologiae, arguing that companies use dissociation
strategies to distance themselves from the wrong-doing. They use
opinion/knowledge, individual/group, and act/essence dissociations. In
opinion/knowledge dissociations, companies deny the charges by asserting
that the accusations are only opinions that those who really know won't
accept; in individual/group dissociations, companies accuse employee(s) for
the wrong-doing, claiming his/their work does not reflect the standards of
the company; and in act/essence dissociations, companies accept
responsibility but argue that the mistake was an accident and doesn't
reflect the usually superior acts of the corporation (p. 235).
The dissociation approach differs from the way more traditional apologia
scholars have classified message strategies, though there is overlap. The
dissociation approach, in fact, is contained within broader approaches
offered by other scholars. Ware and Linkugel (1973), for example, identify
strategies of denial, bolstering, differentiation, and
transcendence. Expanding this list of strategies, Benoit (1995) argues
that successful apologia typically adopts a combination of strategies that
may include denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness of
event, corrective action, and mortification (pp. 74-82).
When adopting a strategy of denial, the apologist will typically either
argue he didn't do it, or will attempt to shift the blame. Evading
responsibility includes provocation ("I wouldn't have done it except I was
provoked."), defeasibility ("I lacked information or skills, or I had no
control over the situation"), accident ("It was an unavoidable mishap."),
and justification ("My intentions were good."). Apologists who try to
reduce the offensiveness of an event will attempt to 1) bolster themselves
as being worthy individuals despite the occurrence, 2) minimize the event's
importance, 3) differentiate the event from more serious wrongs, 4)
transcend the reality of the event to a larger context or a different
context, 5) attack the accusers, or 6) offer some form of
compensation. Strategies of corrective action include promising to mend
one's ways, promising to restore the situation to the state of affairs
before the event, or promising to make changes in policies to prevent
similar future events. Apologists who use mortification will ask for
forgiveness or express regret (Benoit, 1995, pp. 74-79).
Hearit (1996) argues that companies that engage in counter-attacks
(Benoit's fifth sub-strategy under the reducing offensiveness strategy)
will better preserve their public image because the "kategoria" shifts the
public's attention away from the company's supposed wrong-doing to the
ethics or accuracy of the attacker (p. 246). Benoit (1995) argues that
the more successful apologiae will be those that use a combination of
strategies. He also counsels the apologist to admit fault, if at fault,
immediately and to report plans to correct problems and prevent
recurrences. He argues that denial, shifting blame, and minimization do
not typically work to preserve an apologist's image. Ultimately, Benoit
(1995) argues, all strategies are limited (pp. 160-164).
This paper analyzes six high-profile news organization's apologia and
parallel apologia offered by individual journalists involved in the
events. All were issued between 1981 and 1998. The news organization
apologia examined are: the Washington Post's apology for publication of
"Jimmy's World," by Janet Cooke; the Cincinnati Enquirer's apology to
Chiquita; the New Republic's apology for publishing false articles by
Stephen Glass; the San Jose Mercury's apology for its "Dark Alliance"
series by Gary Webb; Time's and CNN's apology for their joint reporting of
"Tailwind," and Dateline NBC's apology for its exploding GM pickup trucks
Each apologia is analyzed using the approaches of Benoit and Hearit to
identify the strategies used. Examination of published responses to each
apologia will allow an assessment of the apologia's success. Finally,
suggestions for successful future journalist apologia are offered.
The apologia chosen for this study involved four cases of overt acts
(Washington Post, Cincinnati Enquirer, New Republic, Dateline NBC) and two
cases of alleged failures that involved poor skills and poor judgment (San
Jose Mercury-News and Time/CNN). The organizations represented included
three major national news outlets (Dateline NBC, Washington Post, and
Time/CNN), one special-audience, national news and opinion outlet (New
Republic) and two regional news outlets (Cincinnati Enquirer, San Jose
Mercury-News). Three cases involved apologies that were orchestrated as
partial resolution to or in anticipation of lawsuits against the news media
organization (Cincinnati Enquirer, Dateline NBC, and Time/CNN). In all
cases, news stories of national scope were involved. These cases provide a
mix of news media organization size and influence, and all involve events
that potentially breached national journalism standards.
Janet Cooke's 1980 feature article about an eight-year-old heroin addict
caused a whirlwind of concern in Washington, D.C. City, church, and
child-welfare officials searched in vain for the troubled youngster to save
him from drugs and a family that appeared to encourage his drug use. After
the article won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, doubts about
its validity intensified, ultimately leading to Cooke's admission that
"Jimmy" did not exist. Moreover, it was discovered that Cooke also lied
about her educational background and her ability to speak four foreign
languages. The Pulitzer committee withdrew its prize, and the Washington
Post fired Cooke. In April 1981, the Washington Post issued a formal
apology ("The End of the Jimmy Story," 1981, April 16).
In its apologia, the Post primary strategy was to offer corrective action,
promising that the ". . . heat that our colleagues traditionally bring to
bear on the outside world will now be trained on our own interior
workings." Further corrective action was the Post's firing of Janet Cooke.
Then post editors supplemented the corrective action with strategies that
attempted to evade responsibility by offering a strategy of defeasibility,
asserting that it didn't know the article was a fake ("This newspaper . . .
was itself the victim of a hoax."), and asserting that Cooke's hoax was so
big, normal fact-checking procedures couldn't catch it ("In some way, it is
already plain, the sheer magnitude and breathtaking gall of the deception –
its size – made it harder to detect." [ital. in original]). Further
defeasibility was the newspaper's shifting of blame to an untrustworthy
employee – Janet Cooke (the newspaper was "angry, chagrined, misused
ourselves"). A third strategy was transcendence to reduce the
offensiveness of the wrong-doing, hoping to place the episode into a
broader context more favorable to the newspaper: "In fact, it will be an
error and a shame if serious students and critics of the press take the
'Jimmy' episode as the model of what's wrong with us or as evidence that
stories are largely fabrications. The fact is that the shortcomings we in
this business are continually fighting against, the shortcomings that can
threaten our prized credibility and that we recognize in all their danger
are far more subtle and insidious than some out-and-out made-up
story." The editors also stressed that the faked story should not
overshadow the "existence of a hard drug problem being spread to and
imposed upon very young children." A forth strategy the paper used was
bolstering ("We feel . . . determined to continue the kind of aggressive
reporting Miss Cooke's story only purported to be and determined also to
maintain and honor the highest standards of straight and fair
reporting."). The Post admitted some responsibility for the wrong-doing by
acknowledging that "warning bells" should have sounded during the editing
of the piece. Finally, the newspaper offered mortification, expressing
regret that the incident occurred. The newspaper did not directly address
the journalism profession, but appeared to speak more to its readers and
the Washington, D.C. officials.
Moreover, the Post's apologia can also be seen as trying to dissociate
itself from the wrong-doing by blaming it on Janet Cooke's tainted moral
character (individual/group dissociation) and by arguing that Cooke's
article does not represent the tough reporting and the "highest standards
of straight and fair reporting" the paper normally applies (act/essence
The Post followed its apology with a detailed, 18,000-word dissection of
the error and its causes, reported and written by its ombudsman, Bill Green.
Reaction to "Jimmy's World" apology
The Janet Cooke fabrication has retained a high profile in media ethics
because of its obvious violation of traditional ethical standards. Twenty
years later, an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, for example,
refers to the episode as "the gold standard by which all other acts of
journalistic mendacity were measured . . ." (R.P., 2001,
November-December.). Nevertheless, the Post's 1981 apologia was received
positively by the public and by the profession at the time. Renowned
novelist and former journalist James A. Michener (1981), for instance,
wrote that the Post "deserves compassion," apparently accepting Post
editors' assertions that it, too, had been the victim of a massive hoax
perpetrated by Janet Cooke. The New York Times editorialized that the
Post's "apologies and embarrassments all around can be only the first steps
toward reaffirming a public trust" and applauded the Post's assertion that
it would investigative the causes of the error and change its policies to
prevent a recurrence, showing an acceptance of the newspaper's strategy of
corrective action. Participants at the 1981 meeting of the American
Society of Newspaper Editors credited ombudsman Bill Green's exhaustive
report "with clearing the air and helping to repair the damage" (Mayer,
1981, May 4). Moreover, the general public, to some extent, appears to
have accepted the Post's strategies of transcendence and defeasibility. A
Newsweek public opinion poll taken in May 1981 asked respondents whether
they thought the Janet Cooke hoax "was an isolated incident" of whether
"reporters often make things up." One month after the Post published its
apology, 58 percent of the respondents said the Cooke incident was an
isolated incident and not reflective of the general trustworthiness of the
news media; 33 percent – one third – though, said reporters often make
things up, suggesting that a sizable portion of the public didn't accept
the Post's explanation ("How the Media Rate," 1981, May 4). However, Day
(2002) concluded that at the time of the incident, the Cooke affair was
"dismissed as an isolated incident …" (p.10).
The Exploding GM Truck
NBC Dateline presented an investigative report Nov. 17, 1992, alleging
that some GM trucks had improperly designed fuel tanks that could lead to
explosions during routine traffic accidents. GM launched an aggressive
retaliatory response that shifted attention from the trucks to the ethics
of NBC (Hearit, 1996). Using poor judgment, NBC producers had placed
incendiary devices on a truck during a crash test that would have ensured
an explosion if gasoline leaked. GM seized on this, accusing NBC of
rigging the test.
NBC, facing a defamation lawsuit from GM, issued an apology nearly three
months after the story aired (Feb. 10, 1993), adopting primary strategies
of mortification and corrective action ("Excerpts from Statement" 1993,
Feb. 10). The network's apology was issued specifically as a means of
settling the lawsuit GM had filed. "We acknowledge and take responsibility
for the problems GM has identified in the demonstration crash," NBC
Dateline hosts Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips announced during an on-air,
3.5-minute apology. "We deeply regret we included the inappropriate
demonstration in our Dateline report. We apologize to our viewers and to
General Motors." As corrective action, the apologia provided assurance
that changes would prevent repeats of the offensive action during hard-news
stories ("We have also concluded that unscientific demonstrations should
have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That's our new policy …")
Nevertheless, NBC attempted to reduce offensiveness from its act by
separating the offense from the larger context in which it is viewed,
arguing that the offense is being viewed out of context ("NBC personnel
knew this [that incendiary devices were used by consultants performing the
demonstration crash] … but the public was not informed because consultants
at the scene told us the devices did not start the fire.") NBC also used a
strategy of differentiation to help reduce offensiveness, saying it
believed it had presented "in the balance of the segment, all sides of the
controversy over the safety of the GM trucks."
Corrective action by NBC included the firing of two producers who worked
on the story and the demotion of the on-air journalist who reported the
story. For their part, the producers denied they did anything wrong,
arguing that they withheld information about the devices from the public
because they didn't contribute to the fire and to discuss them would have
confused the public. NBC News President Michael Gardner, who wrote the
apology after strongly defending the story, later was forced to resign amid
continuing controversy over the incident.
Reaction to the NBC apology
The NBC apology addressed viewers and General Motors, but network
attorneys and executives were primarily apologizing to GM as an agreed
means of settling a potentially expensive defamation lawsuit, which the
automaker had filed one day prior to NBC's on-air apology. Within this
limited purpose, it was a successful apology. GM immediately accepted the
statement and withdrew its lawsuit. The New York Times quoted William J.
O'Neill, director of public affairs for the company's North American
operations: "We feel that the issue has been resolved and that the
reputation and the good name of our people and products have been restored
based on the apology" (quoted in Elliott, 1993).
In stark contrast, public and professional reaction decidedly condemned
the network. Three months after the segment had aired, the controversy
over NBC was far from over. It was the "scandal of the exploding truck
that won't stop burning," according to critic Tom Shales (1993). The most
astonishing finding of a March 1993 Times Mirror Center for the People &
The Press public poll, according to the report's authors, was that NBC
News' credibility in the public's eyes had slipped to the lowest of the
four national networks, NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN. In contrast, a similar poll
conducted in 1989 had ranked NBC News as first in believability among the
networks ("NBC's Believability Burned," p. 1). While Dateline NBC's ratings
hadn't slipped – in fact, they rose – during the same time frame, the
network's integrity suffered a blow.
The news profession criticized NBC News, too. The New York Times
editorialized that the network's news executives had failed to recognize
the incident as the "professional mistake" that it was. Moreover, the
editorial criticized NBC News for not doing its own investigation of the
incident (the network had hired attorneys to investigate) and for not being
sincere. The news executives had avoided "straight talk" about the
incident, the editorial chastises. "Their abdication to their lawyers
reflects the nervousness of men whose primary aim is not to make a contrite
confession to an understandably cynical public but to dissuade G.M. from
resurrecting its lawsuit" ("Hiding Behind the Lawyers" 1993, Feb.
17). Other criticisms included the network's taking too long to institute
corrective action and to show mortification (Sunde 1993, April; Carmondy
1993, March 30) and failure to offer corrective action for the underlying
causes of the mistake – which were said to be competitive pressures in
network news (Nelson 1993, May). Consequently, NBC News' apologia
strategies of mortification (regret) and corrective action (promising to
change) were largely unsuccessful. Additionally, NBC's attempt to
differentiate the validity of the rest of the report from the offending act
failed. GM, through its public relations effort, successfully shifted
public attention from the safety concerns of its trucks to the questionable
ethics of NBC News (Hearit 1996). To the public and the profession, NBC
News' apologia was largely unsuccessful.
In August 1997, the San Jose Mercury-News stunned the nation with an
investigative report that concluded there was collusion between the Central
Intelligence Agency, Nicaraguan Contras, and Los Angeles gang leaders to
smuggle crack cocaine to the Los Angeles area at the beginning of the
United States' crack epidemic in the 1980s. The article alleged that
Nicaraguan opponents to the Sandinistan government sold cocaine with the
CIA's approval to LA drug lords, who turned it into crack. The Nicaraguan
rebels reportedly used proceeds from the drug sales to finance its civil
war against the Sandinistas. The article, which was primarily the work of
veteran investigative reporter Gary Webb, was supplemented with prominent
display on the Mercury-News' Web site, giving the story national
exposure. The article was met with outrage in the African-American
community, whose leaders demanded a congressional investigation. Major
U.S. newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the
Los Angeles Times doubted the article's conclusions and launched
investigations of their own into Webb's investigation, finding serious
flaws. Criticism from the U.S. newspaper industry's distinguished leaders
led Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the Mercury-News to launch an
internal investigation, concluding that the series was flawed by
misjudgments; under-use of important, contrary evidence; and poorly
substantiated conclusions. Consequently, the Mercury-News disavowed the
"Dark Alliance" series and 90 days after its publication issued an apology,
and Ceppos expanded on the apology in an article published in Quill, the
magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists ("We Fell Short of My
Standards" 1997, November).
In his apology, Ceppos adopted the primary strategies of mortification and
corrective action. "We should have done better," Ceppos wrote. As for
corrective actions, Ceppos explained the newspaper would improve its
editing of project stories and was changing the procedures for handling
major investigations. He also reassigned Gary Webb to a satellite
bureau. However, Ceppos attempted to evade responsibility through
justification ("I believe this is a major public-policy issue" worthy of
investigation). He also attempts to reduce offensiveness through
bolstering ("Our series solidly documented disturbing information" and "the
series did not meet our standards" and "Does the presence of conflicting
information invalidate our entire effort? I strongly believe the answer is
no, and that this story was right on many important points" And "Our
re-examination found additional corroboration on some points"). He also
offered minimization and transcendence, other strategies for reducing
offensiveness. He argued that "our series solidly documented disturbing
information" – suggesting that while some errors were made, major points of
the article are valid – and "there is evidence to support the specific
assertions and conclusions of our series" – the series is right about
specific assertions and conclusions, though interpretations were in error
(minimization). And he placed the error within the broader context of the
difficult job of doing journalism and in the broader context of his 28-year
record of making good journalistic decisions (transcendence). Webb, for
his part, vigorously disagreed with Ceppos' conclusion that mistakes were
made and was upset that his editor would apologize for the series. He
called the apology "bizarre" and later resigned. In his apology, Ceppos
was primarily speaking to the journalism profession for failing to uphold
high standards (his apology was printed in Quill, the magazine of a leading
journalism organization dedicated to ethics), and to the federal
government, specifically the CIA.
Although Ceppos clearly accepted responsibility ("Ultimately, the
responsibility was, and is, mine."), he also tried to dissociate the
newspaper from what he believed were mistakes by his reporter
(individual/group) and to dissociate the mistakes of the series from the
newspaper's normal handling of news (fact/essence). He stressed, for
example, what "his" standards were (implying that Webb's lesser standards
led to the mistakes) and attempted to separate the flawed series from the
newspaper by asserting that the "series did not meet our standards."
Reaction to "Dark Alliance" apology
To the segment of the public that believed the series was in error, the
newspaper's apology was successful. Ceppos was praised by other
journalists and newspapers for being "courageous" ("The Mercury News Comes
Clean" 1997) and for being "painfully honest" and accepting responsibility
(Rieder 1997, June). Rieder (1997) also described Ceppos' apology as
classy and wrote that "taking responsibility, a la Jerry Ceppos, and
striving to do things better are two great ways to start working toward
rapprochement" (p. 4). Ceppos' apology saved his career. He was promoted
to vice president for news for the San Jose Mercury News' parent company,
Knight-Ridder. The St. Petersburg Times editorialized that "By
acknowledging the problems with the Mercury News series, Ceppos
courageously set about winning back the trust of readers and set an example
for other editors" ("An Editor Comes Clean" 1997, May 15). In this sense,
Ceppos' strategies of transcendence, bolstering, minimization,
mortification, corrective action, and dissociation were successful.
Nevertheless, others were less convinced. Those in the public who agreed
with the series' findings objected to Ceppos' apology. "Ceppos' groveling
act was nothing more than a reassurance to the customers that the SJMerc is
solidly and ideologically in the corporate tent," wrote Joe Horman in a
listserve, ciadrugs. The Nation magazine commented that Ceppos' apology
"ignored virtually everything that was right with his paper's remarkable
scoop and focused only on those aspects of the story that overshot its
goal" ("CIA, Crack, the Media" 1997, June 2). Commentator Gregory P. Kane
(1998, Jan. 13) accused the Mercury News of "punking out" and caving in to
national media and government pressure to retract the series (p. A9). Some
who disagreed with the series' findings found the apology "lukewarm"
("Addiction is the Problem, Not CIA" 1997, May 15). In these quarters,
critics targeted Ceppos' strategies of transcendence, bolstering, and
minimization as unnecessary retreat from a substantially supported
investigation, or just the opposite – a failure to own up to the series'
fatal flaws. In general, however, the apology was successful because it
restored the San Jose Mercury-News's reputation.
"Apology to Chiquita"
The Cincinnati Enquirer published an aggressive investigative report on
Chiquita Brands International on May 3, 1998, taking on a prominent
international corporation headquartered in Cincinnati. The series was
primarily reported by experienced investigative reporter Mike Gallagher,
and exposed questionable business practices by the giant company. Chiquita
responded by exposing that Gallagher had illegally gained access to private
company's voice mail system and used information from inter-office messages
in his reporting. Under threat of a lawsuit, the Enquirer editors
published a front-page apology to Chiquita, renouncing the articles, and
paid the corporation more than $10 million ("An apology to Chiquita" 1998,
In its apology, the Enquirer adopted the primary strategy of corrective
action, announcing that it had withdrawn the articles from its Web site,
renounced the articles, fired Gallagher, compensated Chiquita in exchange
for a settlement of claims against the paper, and launched an internal
investigation to determine whether other reporters were involved in
stealing voice mail tapes or other misconduct. In addition, the paper's
apology adopts strategies of defeasibility, claiming that Gallagher lied to
them and they had no way of knowing that the information wasn't obtained
legally; and transcendence, placing the episode in a more favorable frame
of reference, insisting that they had placed unwarranted trust in one of
their "lead" reporters. The editors also showed mortification – not for
the incident, but because Gallagher's actions harmed the paper's integrity
("The Enquirer deeply regrets that these unauthorized actions have hurt the
integrity of the newspaper and the trust of our readers.") The Enquirer's
apology speaks almost directly to Chiquita, rather than to the paper's
readers or the journalism profession.
The Enquirer attempt to dissociate itself from Gallagher (individual/group
dissociation) and Gallagher's acts from what the newspaper accepts as
ethical and proper journalistic behavior, suggesting that the Chiquita
articles should be seen as an isolated event and not representative of the
Reaction to "Apology to Chiquita"
The Cincinnati Enquirer's apology, and the paper's payment of more than
$10 million to Chiquita Brands International, clearly was issued to avoid
an expensive lawsuit, and to that end it was successful. Nevertheless, the
public and press viewed it as confusing and "abject" (Turner and Annin
1998, July 13). It did nothing to forestall a "national media controversy"
(Turner and Annin 1998, July 13). Observers other than Chiquita apologists
criticized the Enquirer for failing to defend the facts in the news stories
which the Enquirer repudiated generally as "untrue and [having] created a
false and misleading impression" of the way Chiquita does business. As
Newsweek reported, "The paper's strategy has puzzled some legal scholars,
media lawyers – and even some Enquirer employees" (Turner and Annin 1998,
July 13). Enquirer publisher Harry M. Whipple acknowledged that his
editors did not suspect any fabrication of information (Turner and Annin
1998, July 13). The Seattle Times editorialized that the Enquirer had done
the right thing to retract the articles, but in a letter that newspaper's
editor, a reader wrote that it had drawn the wrong conclusion: "The
Enquirer's retraction is based on two thins: the possible illegality of
its reporter's acquisition of company voicemail messages and Chiquita's
threat of a massive lawsuit. Neither invalidates the story itself"
(Marquardt 1998, July 25). Moreover, Newsweek wrote that "To some, the
Enquirer's apology looked like a cave-in, another news organization scared
of recent big awards in libel cases. . . [D]oesn't the paper owe it to its
readers to explain what was and wasn't true in the article?" (Turner and
Annin 1998, July 13). Bill Kovach (1998, Sept. 25), curator of the Nieman
Foundation at Harvard University, was quoted as saying: "It [the apology]
suggests that their [the Enquirer's] first allegiance is more to the
financial concerns (of a possible lawsuit) than it is to the truth or lack
thereof in the original work." Consequently, the Enquirer's apologia
lacked success, except for the limited purpose of preventing a lawsuit. In
fact, many readers abused the Enquirer for retracting the articles (its
primary strategy of apologia).
Stephen Glass and the New Republic
Stephen Glass, a young, aggressive, and prolific writer, published 41
stories in the New Republic between 1995 and 1998. He also published in
stories in, among other publications, Rolling Stone and National
Review. Editors at Forbes Digital Tool, the Web site of Forbes magazine,
notified New Republic editors that they were unable to confirm a Glass
article, published May 18, 1998 under the headline "Hack Heaven." The
article purported to expose payoffs by computer companies to computer
hackers. The Forbes tip-off led New Republic editors to investigate the
authenticity of the article. When they discovered through their own
investigation and a partial confession by Glass that the article was a
fake, they investigated other Glass articles the magazine had published,
finding that 37 of his 41 articles were made-up or included sources and
other facts that could not be verified. The magazine editors issued two
apologies, approximately one month apart, after its investigation was
complete. The apologies identified the questionable articles by title and
explained the problems with each one ("To Our Readers" 1998, June 1; "To
Our Readers" 1998, June 29).
In its apologia, the New Republic offered two primary
strategies: bolstering ("The New Republic has always been a stringent
magazine – stringent about intellectual honesty and stringent about telling
the truth. We have not hesitated to hold others to account when they have,
in our judgment, transgressed against those norms. . . . [T]his stringency
– which is such an integral part of this institution's 84-year tradition .
. .") and corrective action. The magazine said it conducted a thorough
investigation, offered a retraction, and fired Glass. In defense of
itself, the magazine offered a strategy of defeasibility ("precautions we
took were not adequate to prevent Glass's fabrications from making it into
print") and insistence that the magazine's fact-checking system wasn't
designed for "systematic and intentional deceptions" such as Glass's
articles represented – in both instances making an argument that the
magazine lacked the ability to prevent the wrong-doing. It also used a
strategy of justification, attempting to evade responsibility, by insisting
that it had acted on good faith ("These editors [published Glass' articles]
in the sincere belief that they were publishing the legitimate work of a
promising journalist . . .") Finally, the magazine offered mortification
("We offer no excuses for any of this. Only our deepest apologies to all
concerned.") The magazine editors spoke primarily to its readers, but also
to some extent to the journalism profession by emphasizing the New
Republic's 84-year tradition of being stringent about telling the truth, a
tradition with which other journalists could identify.
The New Republic also attempted to dissociate itself from the wrong-doing
by shifting the blame on Glass, who, the editors said, tricked what they
insisted was an otherwise honorable magazine (individual/group) and by
insisting that Glass's transgressions did not represent the usual
high-standards of the magazine (act/essence).
Reaction to the New Republic apology
The New Republic's apologia was largely successful. Several of the
magazine's readers praised editor Charles Lane for firing Glass and
promising other corrective action, essentially absolving the editorial
staff of guilt. They accepted, in a sense, the New Republic's strategies
of bolstering, defeasibility, and justification, and appreciated the
magazine's mortification. "I thought it impossible to hold the New
Republic in any higher regard and esteem for honesty and integrity until I
read your mea culpa. There is nothing to forgive and everything to be
proud of on your part for taking such an action," wrote one reader who
reflected others' opinion (Kennedy 1998, July 20 & 27). "Apology
accepted," wrote another (Bruns 1998, July 20 & 27). The readers'
responses were not unanimous (some thought Glass had been writing satire
all along), but it was overwhelmingly in favor of the magazine. Likewise,
most of the press did not substantially criticize the New Republic,
apparently accepting its strategies of defeasibility and
justification. However, more than one commentator rejected the New
Republic's use of bolstering, arguing that the magazine routinely fails to
provide rigorously substantiated articles. Steinfels (1998, June 19)
wrote: "Truth requires more than getting past the fact-checker. It requires
balance, perspective, receptivity, an understanding of the complexity of
others' motives, and maybe some suspicion of one's own. These qualities
have long been missing from the magazine's editorials and featured articles
. . ." Scocca (1998, May 26) accused the New Republic of having been a
"willing victim, beguiled by snazzy storytelling." But these criticisms
were the exception, rather than the rule.
Two apologia were issued for the Operation Tailwind investigative story
that appeared June 7, 1998, on the premiere of Newstand: CNN and Time, a
joint broadcast/print effort between CNN and Time magazine. The Tailwind
story, reported primarily by CNN producers April Oliver and Jack Smith,
alleged that during the Vietnam War, the American military secretly used
the nerve gas sarin during an attack in Laos. The story aired on CNN and
was issued in print form by Time magazine, though Time reporters and
editors apparently did not contribute to the reporting. Denials by current
and former military officers and personnel involved in Operation Tailwind
stirred a firestorm of protest against Time and CNN, leading both
organizations to investigate charges that the allegations were false. CNN
went so far as to hire respected First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to
investigate. Abrams issued a detailed, 54-page report concluding that
sources used in the report were not trustworthy and the allegations had not
been proven. CNN aired an apology on July 2, 1998. Time issued its
apology in a "To Our Readers" column July 13, 1998 (Isaacson, 1998).
CNN's primary apologia strategy was to offer corrective action, promising
to restore the situation to the conditions prior to the network's broadcast
and Time's publication. The network retracted its story, declared that the
sources used in the story were not credible, and quoted stellar sources
refuting the initial allegations. In addition, Oliver and Smith were
fired, Pam Hill (Smith's boss) resigned and the on-air personality for the
story, respected journalist Peter Arnett was reprimanded (later
fired). For their part, Oliver and Smith denied that the story was flawed
and issued a point-by-point response to Abrams' report. CNN founder Ted
Turner's anguished mortification in which he acknowledged thinking about
committing suicide, was not part of the official network apologia. The
network also used a secondary strategy of transcendence, saying that the
reporters were only doing their jobs, but the sources shouldn't have been
trusted. ("Although the broadcast was prepared after exhaustive research,
was rooted in considerable supportive data and reflected the deeply held
believes of the CNN journalists who prepared it, the central thesis of the
broadcast could not be sustained at the time of the broadcast and cannot be
Time managing editor Walter Isaacson issued an apologia as well, focusing
primarily on a strategy of corrective action, denial (blame-shifting), and
defeasibility. As corrective action, Time retracted the story, which was
written by CNN journalists, and pledged to never again publish an article
that was not investigated or fact-checked by Time reporters and editors
("We have learned a lot from the mistakes made, and we are working out new
procedures to avoid them in the future," Isaacson declared.) Time also
tried to shift the blame to CNN reporters, pointing out clearly that the
article published in the magazine was written by Oliver and
Smith. Defeasibility was used when Isaacson pointed out that the magazine
had no way of knowing that the allegations were false ("We believed that
the initial CNN report and article were based on substantial
evidence.") Time also offered mortification, asserting that it had an
obligation to say it was sorry ("We are.").
Both CNN and Time accepted responsibility and did little to distance
themselves from the producers responsible or the error. ("When we make
mistakes, it's important to be open and honest about them …" Isaacson
wrote.) In both apologia, each organization's readers were addressed
directly, as were the military personnel accused of wrong-doing. In
addition, AOL Time-Warner, the parent company of both CNN and Time, paid
considerable sums in settlement to military personnel tarnished by the story.
Reaction to the Tailwinds apology
Time's and CNN's apologies were spectacularly unsuccessful, even though
they had revealed the results of extensive investigations of the errors,
retracted the story, promised more corrective action, used transcendence to
try to put the error into a larger context, and accepted
responsibility. Time received less criticism than CNN, however. But in
both cases, commentators argued that the apologies didn't go far enough and
that higher-up executives at CNN also should have been fired. Indeed, a
Newsweek public survey found that "the fallout from Tailwind has helped
drive the press's credibility to what may be a record low" (Thomas and
Vistica 1998, July 20). In the poll, more than half of the Americans
questioned (53 percent) characterized news reporting as "often inaccurate,"
and 76 percent said "the race for ratings and profits have driven the media
'too far' in the direction of entertainment rather than traditional
reporting" (Thomas and Vistica 1998, July 20). Moreover, in July (the
month CNN issued its apology), the average number of households that
watched CNN in prime time dropped to 593,000, down from 680,000 one year
before, while MSNBC's viewership increased 144 percent over the previous
year (Siklos 1998, Aug. 17). Secretary of State Colin Powell said CNN's
apology and retraction didn't go far enough to repair the damage the
network had done. He said network executives "should declare flat out that
the Tailwind report is either correct or false – not just that they didn't
have enough proof to make it stick" (Hickey 1998, September-October). The
Columbia Journalism Review, in an article that dissected the incident, said
CNN and Time used "perverse misjudgment" and "poor judgment" (Hickey 1998,
September-October, p. 26). "You and CNN blew your journalistic integrity
with your Tailwind nerve-gas report," wrote a reader to Time magazine
(Perry 1998, Aug. 3). A commentator writing in USA Today said, "Having
issued its retraction, CNN now apparently wants credit for admitting it was
wrong, as if a willingness to apologize is a news organization's most
important trait. Better, perhaps, would be a willingness to take
responsibility for the mistake – something CNN's top management has so far
failed to do" (Bianco 1998, July 6).
Of the six media apologia examined for this paper, three can be considered
successful – those of the San Jose Mercury-News, the New Republic, and the
Washington Post – and three were failures – NBC News, Time/CNN, and the
Cincinnati Enquirer. Obviously, many factors are at work in each
case. The institution involved, for example, will undoubtedly play a
role. The failures of NBC News and Time/CNN, for example, suggest that
national news organizations of prominence will have greater hurdles to
clear for success. The prominence of the person or organization wronged
and the audience's willingness to believe wrong-doing on the part of an
investigative target also will affect the apologia's reception. In most
cases, however, a determining factor for acceptance appears to be the
evaluation of other journalism organizations. The San Jose Mercury-News,
for example, was largely successful because two powerful news organizations
accepted its apology – the New York Times and the Washington Post. The New
Republic's and Washington Post's apologies were successful largely because
critics in the press empathized with the magazine's editors and accepted
their explanation. But in all cases, the audience's and press's response
to the various apologia could be predicted based on the individual
apologia's choice of strategies.
Benoit argues that two strategies are of utmost importance for an apologia
to be successful – if wrong has been done, the wrong-doer must immediately
admit it and show sufficient mortification; and corrective action (either
correcting the wrong or promising changes to prevent reoccurrences). San
Jose Mercury-News, the New Republic, and the Washington Post all forcefully
took responsibility for their respective wrong-doing and showed
regret. Moreover, they each took appropriate corrective
action. Additionally, the San Jose Mercury-News and the Washington Post
used transcendence as secondary strategies, placing the incidents into the
broader context of professional responsibility, and successfully
disassociated themselves from the individual wrong-doers (Ceppos
distinguished his professional standards from those of his reporter, Gary
Webb, and implied that Webb's standards did not measure up to professional
journalistic standards; the Washington Post clearly disavowed Janet Cooke's
behavior as being unprofessional). The New Republic and, to some extent
the Washington Post, benefited because the audience and the profession
accepted their defeasibility claims of being unable to detect deceptions of
NBC News faltered because it did not immediately admit wrong-doing and
apologize. Critics noted, for example, that NBC News President Michael
Gardner knew that incendiary devices had been used but stuck by the story
until threatened with a lawsuit by General Motors. The Tailwind apologiae
failed because CNN did not fire upper level producers and managers and did
not immediately fire on-air personality Peter Arnett, so its strategy of
corrective action was not accepted. Also, neither Time nor CNN, in their
apologies, attempted to disassociate themselves from the wrong-doers, which
may have hurt them. Moreover, Time's strategy of blame-shifting (accusing
CNN producers) and defeasibility ("we had no way of knowing") was rejected
by the audience because it was seen that Time was obligated to take
responsibility for what it publishes. Furthermore, Time and CNN's attack
on the U.S. military using what most perceived was flimsy evidence, at
best, was viewed as so egregious an act that regrets and promises to do
better (and the firing of low-level producers) were not seen as adequate
given the magnitude of the affront.
The Cincinnati Enquirer's apology failed in the public's eye because the
audience did not perceive it as being sincere, and the press did not
perceive it as being concerned with professional standards. The Enquirer's
repudiation of illegal behavior by its reporter was accepted, but observers
criticized the Enquirer for disowning the series' truthful allegations. In
effect, its apology was seen as an unwarranted capitulation to corporate
threat of a lawsuit. As one letter-writer commented, the Enquirer's story
was different from other missteps by the media: It was "a newspaper
without the guts to stand by a good, hard-hitting story about the misdeeds
of a local bigshot company" (Marquardt 1998, July 25).
Media apologia for wrong-doing are clearly seen as appropriate. When
Jerry Ceppos of the San Jose Mercury-News apologized for publishing the
"Dark Alliance" series when it did not meet his personal standards for the
paper, for example, his apology was seen as courageous. Nevertheless, how
a news organization apologizes can be as important as whether it apologies.
Further research can help clarify how the status of the wrong-doer and the
status of the wronged can affect the success of a news organization's
Based on the findings in this study, though, sincerely admitting mistakes,
showing regret for them, and correcting them because it is the right thing
to do – not waiting for threats of lawsuits – and announcing long-term
corrective actions to prevent reoccurrences are basic requirements for
successful media apologia. Internal investigations and full disclosure
appear beneficial as well. Moreover, disassociating the news organization
from the offending reporter helps to convince the audience that
transgressions will not be tolerated. This shows adherence to the news
media's primary loyalty – to the public. These strategies served well the
San Jose Mercury-News, the New Republic, and the Washington Post. If a
news organization legitimately cannot prevent the error (as was perceived
in the cases of the New Republic and Washington Post, for example, and was
rejected when Time magazine claimed lack of control), defeasibility may be
an appropriate strategy. Recognizing the damage done to the profession
when a transgression of professional values occurs and apologizing for that
infraction can restore a news organization's image within the profession
and gain important support from other journalists for persuading one's
audience to accept an apology. This was a deciding factor for the San Jose
Mercury-News and the New Republic, and was not done – to their detriment –
by NBC News, Time/CNN, and the Cincinnati Enquirer. There are limits to any
strategies, as Beloit (1995) admits, but choosing strategies that are
affirmative – admitting mistakes, showing regret, promising corrective
action – and limited attempts to reduce the offense through legitimate
bolstering and transcendence will have more success than denial or evading
Addiction is the Problem, Not CIA. (1997, May 15). Copley News Service.
Jan. 30, 2003 from World Wide Web: http://web.lexis-
An Apology to Chiquita. (1998, June 28). Cincinnati Enquirer. A1.
An Editor Comes Clean. (1997, May 15). St. Petersburg Times. 14A.
Benoit, W.L. (1995). Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: A Theory of Image
Strategies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Bianco, R. (1998, July 6). Apology Not the Same as Good Work. USA Today. D3.
Bruns, J. (1998, July 20 & 27). The Glass Affair. The New Republic. 218
Butler, S.D. (1972). The Apologia, 1971 Genre. Southern Speech Communication
Journal. 37. 281-289.
Carmondy, J. (1993, March 30). The TV Column. Washington Post. E4.
Ceppos, J. (1997, November). We Fell Short of My Standards. The Quill. 85
CIA, Crack, the Media. (1997, June 2). The Nation. Retrieved Sept. 5, 2002
World Wide Web: http://past.thenation.com/issue/970602/0602edt1.htm.
Day, L. (2002) Ethics in Media Communications: Cases and Controversies.
Excerpts from Statement. (1993, Feb. 10). The New York Times. A16.
Flint, L.N. (1933). The Conscience of the Newspaper: A Case Book in the
Problems of Journalism. New York: Appleton.
Hearit, K.M. (1996) The Use of Counter-Attack in Apologetic Public
The Case of General Motors vs. Dateline NBC. Public Relations Review. 22 (3).
Hearit, K.M. (1997) On the Use of Transcendence as an Apologia
Strategy: The Case of
Johnson Controls and Its Fetal Protection Policy. Public Relations Review. 23
Hearit, K.M. (1994) Apologies and Public Relations Crises at Chrysler,
Volvo. Public Relations Review. 20 (2). 113-125.
Hearit, K.M. (1999) Newsgroups, Activist Publics, and Corporate Apologia:
The Case of
Intel and Its Pentium Chip. Public Relations Review. 25 (3). 291-312.
Hearit, K.M. (1995a) 'Mistakes Were Made': Organizations, Apologia, and
Social Legitimacy. Communication Studies. 46. 1-17.
Hearit, K.M. (1995b) From 'We Didn't Do It' to "It's Not Our Fault': The Use of
Apologia in Public Relations Crises. In Elwood, W.N. (Ed.) Public Relations
Inquiry as Rhetorical Criticism. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press. 121-129.
Hickey, N. (1998, September-October) "Ten Mistakes tht Led to the Great
Fiasco," Columbia Journalism Review. 37 (3). 26.
Hiding Behind the Lawyers. (1993, Feb. 17). New York Times. A18.
Hoover, J.D. (1989). Big Boys Don't Cry: The Values Constraint in Apologia.
Communication Journal. 54. 235.
How the News Media Rate. (1981, May 4). Newsweek. 51.
Isaacson, W. (1998, July 13). Tailwind: An Apology. Time. 6.
Jackson, J.H. (1956). Plea in Defense of Himself. Western Speech. 20. 185-195.
Kane, G.P. (1998, Jan. 13). Taking on the CIA Takes Real Chutzpah. Times
Kennedy, F. (1998, July 20 & 27). The Glass Affair. The New Republic. 218
Kovach, B. (1998). Quoted in Lobe, J. (1998, Sept. 25). Media-U.S.:
Chiquita Banana Expose Pleads Guilty. Inter Press Service. Retrieved Feb. 3,
2003 from World Wide Web: http://web7.infotrac.galegroup.come/itw/
Kruse, N.W. (1981). Apologia in Team Sport. Quarterly Journal of Speech.
Ling, D.A. (1969, July 25). A Pentadic Analysis of Senator Edward Kennedy's
'To the People of Massachusetts.' Central States Speech Journal. 21. 81-86.
Linkugel, W.A. and Razak, N. (1969). Sam Houston's Speech of Self-Defense
House of Representatives. Southern Speech Journal. 45. 263-275.
MacIntyre, A. (1984). After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame
Marquardt, S. (1998, July 24). Chiquita Banana Story – Paper Has No Guts To
Hard-Hitting Story on Bigshot. Seattle Times. B5.
Mayer, A. J. (1981, May 4). A Searching of Conscience. Newsweek. 50.
Michener, J.A. (1981, May 4). On Integrity in Journalism. U.S.News & World
NBC's Believability Burned. (1993, March). Times Mirror News Interest
Mirror Center for The People & Press.
Nelson, W.D. (1993, May). Competition Casualty. The Quill. 81 (4). 38.
O'Neill, W.J. (1993, Feb. 15). Quoted in Elliott, S. (1993, Feb. 15).
G.M. Plans No Publicity Drive. New York Times. D5.
Perry, J.L. (1998, Aug. 3) "The Tailwind Story," Time. 6.
Rieder, R. (1997, June) "The Lessons of Dark Alliance," American Journalism
19 (5). 6.
Ross, W.D. (1930). The Right and The Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
R.P. (2001, November-December). The Big Lie: Janet Cooke's Story was
Her Central Character Didn't Exist. Columbia Journalism Review. 40 (4). 91.
Ryan, H.R. (1982). Kategoria and Apologia: On Their Rhetorical Criticism
as a Speech
Set. Quarterly Journal of Speech. 68. 254-261.
Scocca, T. (1998, May 26) Disgraced New Republic Writer Stephen Glass's
Seemed Plausible at the Time. The Boston Phoenix, retrieved Sept. 5, 2002
the World Wide Web: http://weeklywire.com/ww/05-26-
Shales, T. (1993, March 3). The Exploding Pryotechnics of Television News.
Washington Post. B1.
Shepard, A.C. (1998, June). To Err is Human, To Correct Divine. American
Review. 20 (5).
Siklos, R. (1998, Aug. 17). This Little Peacock is Showing some Pluck.
Steinfels, P. (1998, June 19) A Tarnished Republic. Commonweal.125 (12). 8.
Sunde, R. (1993, April). Fake News: A Passing Scandal, or Here to Stay? The
The End of the Jimmy Story. (1981, April 16). Washington Post. A18.
The Mercury News Comes Clean. (1997, May 14). New York Times. A20.
Thomas, E. and Vistica, G.L. (1998, July 20). Fallout From a Media Fiasco.
To Our Readers. (1998, June 1). New Republic. 218 (22). 1.
To Our Readers. (1998, June 29). New Republic. 218 (26). 8.
Turner, R. and Annin, P. (1998, July 13). Leaving Messages, Sending Messages.
Newsweek. 132 (2). 64.
Ware, B.L. and Lindugel, W.A. (1973). The Spoke in Defense of Themselves:
Generic Criticism of Apologia. Quarterly Journal of Speech. 59. 273-283.
 "The End of the 'Jimmy' Story" (1981, April 16) the Washington Post,
A18; Walter Isaacson (1998, June 13) "Tailwind: An Apology," Time, 6;
"Newstand: CNN & Time" (1998, July 2) CNN; "To Our Readers" (1998, June 1)
The New Republic (218:22) 8; "An Apology to Chiquita" (1998, June 28) The
Cincinnati Enquirer, retrieved Sept. 5, 2002, from
http://enquirer.com/editions/1998/06/28/loc_chiquita28.html; "Dateline NBC"
(1993, Feb. 10) NBC; Jerry Ceppos (1997, November) "We Fell Short of My
Standards," The Quill (85:9) 12; Patricia Smith (1998, June 19) "A Note of
Apology," The Boston Globe, B6; Alicia C. Shepard (1998, June) "To Err is
Human, To Correct Divine," American Journalism Review (20:5).