As attorney Joseph Welch famously said in 1954 to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) during the Army-McCarthy hearings: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?" It's remarkable to know that there are far too many people around for whom the answer is, "No."
And no sense of shame, either.
The other day, a small newspaper in Pennsylvania, the Daily Item, was put in the position of releasing a statement of what they called "chagrin," for printing a particular opinion letter-to-the editor. The letter understandably provoked a great deal of outrage -- much, of course, for what was written, but almost more because the paper let it through -- by suggesting that the President of the United States should be killed.
The letter was titled, "What is a Ramadi?" Here's the most notable passage in question, coming at the end, with emphasis added..
To the families of those fallen heros whose blood lies on the sands of Iraq; don’t you think it might be time to rise up against an administration who has adequately demonstrated their gross incompetence?
This below is the paper's response --
As readers of these pages know, I make a big deal, along with my "company partner" in such things, Nell Minow, in analyzing apologies by public figures or of public matters. I often post them under the heading of "Apology 101." As you also may have noticed, I didn't do that here. That's because this isn't an apology, nor is it intended to be an apology. In fact, that's why I wrote above, "Here is the response". It's clear to me that the editors used this forum, not to apologize, but to reinforce their beliefs, and try to justify their action.
Indeed, they even used the opportunity to intentionally and unnecessarily repeat scurrilous smears of the president -- and do so under the guise of explaining that President Obama has been slammed so repeatedly that it's "common" and so we now pretty much accept it. And further suggesting that it's been done by such respected people as media commentators and candidates for president, so therefor doing such a thing is standard and accepted.
To be very clear, there is nothing "common" about this: 100% of the scurrilous smears against President Barack Obama have been Republican. This is not something standard, or nor has anything "common" about it, most especially to corners of the "mediascape." These are very simply and patently Republican attacks -- something the paper conveniently leaves out. Moreover, the specific attacks they point to by the media and presidential candidates, which is an attempt to give a cover of authority, are not even remotely "common" for being that repugnant. Nothing common at all -- not at that level of indecency. Occasionally offensive, perhaps, yes, but not what the paper is trying to purport here. When those most-guttural epithets, racist slurs, and contemptible smears do appear, it's by the far extreme -- and the bulk of the "mediascape" and presidential candidates not falling over the edge tend to deplore it, or at the very least distance themselves from it.
The paper also writes that "no bells went off" when the editor handling letters read this. This is like the famous scene in the movie Jumbo when Jimmy Durante is sneaking the gargantuan elephant out of the circus, and he's stopped by a guard who calls out, "Where are you going with that elephant?" -- and as the massive animal towering high above him from just a few feet behind, the caught Durante says with an expression of total innocence: "What elephant?"
"No bells went off"?? Do you take the world to be clueless idiots? The only way no bells could have gone off is if there were no bells. The letter writer actually warns us: "Forgive me for being blunt..." And then he goes on to not just offer one way to kill the president, but he goes on a roll -- "execution by guillotine, firingsquad, public hanging." I don't think it's possible for a single one of those to slip through and not set off a bell -- but in case one did...there are two more to get your attention!!
How clear is it that the paper is trying to justify their actions? They specifically and shamelessly note that publication of such letters is "a signal that the opinion is not one we would readily suppress." Perhaps they should shine klieg lights on it, since it shows how they really feel Boy, howdy, that sure undercuts any "apology."
Only at the very end, in the last of eight paragraphs of self-justification does the paper finally even use the word "apologize." Note that the rest of the entire response never once says we think the letter writer's opinion is wrong -- just that merely the last two paragraphs shouldn't have been printed. For all we know, they only feel it shouldn't have been printed...not because it's reprehensible, calling for the brutal murder of the head of the United States... but because they got called out for it so publicly and vociferously. And ultimately that's all they "apologize" for -- that they didn't catch the last two paragraphs and remove it. Not that they actually printed a letter that was so outrageously blistering and hate-filled that it lead to an ultimate conclusion of "execution by guillotine, firingsquad, public hanging.." At what point does a serious editor ready any of that and say, "Y'know, let's just not print this one?"
Which then leads to the ultimate question -- how meaningful is their "apology"? What are the ramifications for the editor who let all this "slip" through, and for the paper itself? Well, those ramifications are: "We will strive to do better next time."
(I'm reminded of yet another movie, this time The Producers. It's the courtroom scene at the end when Max and Leo are on trial for gross and unrelenting swindling of little old ladies, after blowing up a theater, and being found "incredibly guilty." And when Max makes his last words to the court, he ends by saying, "And we will never doing it again." Which, of course, in the very next scene. they do.)
"We will strive to do better."
Okay, great, and -- how so? How will you strive to do better??
The Daily Item couldn't even muster "We will do better next time." Not even that. Just, hey, we'll give it a try. And, hey, we'll see what happens. Nothing about the editor being reprimanded, or being suspended or fired. Nothing about any safeguards the paper itself will put in place. Nothing about...well, anything. Nothing. Just we'll try to do better.
And this might be the most important thing of all -- there is zero recognition by the paper that what they published was not just a reprehensible, sickening letter -- the letter was possibly a federal crime. At the very least, it's the sort of thing that gets investigated by the F.B.I, threatening the life of the President of the United States. And they facilitated it.
And the best they could do was try to justify their actions and say, "We will strive to do better in the future."
This wasn't an apology. This was an craven attempt to justify what they did. And it failed.
And most interesting of all were all the comments afterwards (which you can read here), most seemingly local, that shredded the paper, scathingly -- as much for the phony "apology".as for printing the letter in the first place. And the most telling thing was how many people complained that the paper (which, remember, was okay printing a letter advocating murdering the American president) deleted their critical comments of the newspaper...!
This was not a case of "How not to write an apology." This was how not to run a newspaper. And not have human decency. Nor a sense of shame.
And in the end, this is the explanation of why it was SO wrong to anyone who even things about defending it as "freedom of the press" or "exaggeration" or...whatever faux-reason -- imagine if the letter and "apology" were about a President of the United States who you liked. Imagine now that outrage.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor