Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Apologies have been on my mind lately. Not just because I felt compelled to make one last week for a mistake I made in a column, but also because of what was happening in the news. And I realized yet again: Saying “I’m sorry” has become complicated for all the wrong reasons.

Have you apologized to anyone lately? If so, have you said:

“I’m sorry to anyone who might have been offended …”

“I didn’t mean to be racist/cruel/homophobic/ins ensitive/sexist, but if you thought I was, I apologize …”

“I’m sorry, but you know how you press my buttons, I couldn’t help it …”

“I’m sorry you see it that way …”

If you have offered any of these so-called apologies, you fail.

If your apology is hostility in disguise, it is not an apology.

If you throw the responsibility for your words or deeds on someone else, it is not an apology.

If you compare your misdeeds with others in order to look better (e.g., “I’m sorry, but at least I wasn’t as bad as so-andso”), you are not really apologizing.

Wow. It sounds so complicated. And no one would deny we live in a complicated world. But a real apology should not be that complicated. It shouldn’t hinge on an if, and or but.

I was reminded of this when watching video of the awful gaffe committed by Bay Area news station KTVU. Friends who live there tell me it’s normally one of the better stations in that area.

Quick background: KTVU reported fake and racially offensive pilot names in the Asiana Airlines tragedy. I know whoever dreamed up those names thought it was a joke, but it was not funny to me or to thousands of viewers. It was sick and racist, and for pity’s sake, three people died. The fact that the names actually made it on air reflects very poorly on the KTVU staff.

The first apology they offered was short and milquetoast, inadequate and unsatisfying, and full of excuses. But after that first misstep, they got it right.

Here is part of the apology from anchor Frank Somerville.

“Someone pranked us about the names of the four pilots on Asiana Flight 214. And what we put on the screen and what we read over the air was insulting.

“It was insulting to the Asian community.

“It was insulting to the four pilots.

“And it was insulting to our viewers.

“The bottom line is that we messed up.

“Yes, we called the NTSB to confirm.

“And, yes, the NTSB released a statement saying:

‘Earlier today, in response to an inquiry from a media outlet, a summer intern acted outside the scope of his authority when he erroneously confirmed the names of the flight crew on the aircraft.’

“But regardless, we still put it on the air. And we have no one to blame but us. We should have known better.”

There it is. A real apology. OK, he did mention the NTSB mistake, but overall it was unsparing and honest.

That’s a hard thing to do, especially played out in public to what was by then a national audience.

I think one of the problems we have today is that so many people think it’s weak to admit you’re wrong. Maybe they’re afraid of getting sued. Maybe their political or social agenda makes it impossible for them to show remorse or to back away and admit a mistake. Or maybe their parents just didn’t raise them right.

Whatever the reason, admitting to – and taking responsibility for – mistakes is a real rarity nowadays.

Somerville concluded his station’s mea culpa with words that really resonated with me:

“I always tell my kids, ‘If you make a mistake, come clean, admit what you did, say you’re sorry and take the consequences.’

“So that’s what I’m doing here.

“We made a HUGE mistake.

“There is NO excuse for what happened.

“And speaking for everyone at the station, we are sorry.”

Now that, readers, is a real apology. I can forgive a lapse in judgment in the face of such honesty, and I’m sure many of their viewers feel the same.