American Idol apology competition: Rush vs. Dave

Recently, there has been considerable talk about apologies. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea if we had an American Idol type show in which we assessed the apologies that celebrities offer when left with no alternative.

Let’s establish a couple of guidelines before we begin the Idol competition. First, let’s clarify the kind of apology that is essentially worthless. It’s also the most frequent kind of apology.

It goes like this, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

This one gets you no points. Such an “apology” involves no acknowledgement of responsibility. It’s the other person’s fault for not having the strength of character to accept a legitimate comment that directly or indirectly references them.

Perhaps the most widelyread recent non-apology is Rush Limbaugh’s offering to Georgetown Law Student Sandra Fluke, after calling her a slut and a prostitute on the air. His reasoning: Ms. Fluke testified before Congress in favor of contraceptives being included as part of a health care package for students.

“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.

I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level.

My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

This is a 191-word so-called apology. Only 55 of those words express any degree of regret on his part. And those 55 words include phrases like “I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke” and “My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

This is very similar to the “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings” type non-apology. Mr. Limbaugh only expresses regret about the words that he used that might have hurtful to Ms. Fluke (with an underlying message of “if she had been a stronger person, these words would not have bothered her.”).

None of Mr. Limbaugh’s 191 words involve acknowledgement on his part of the content of what he said. He does not acknowledge that (a) he clearly did not understand how birth control pills work, and (b) there is no correlation between whether or not a woman takes birth control bills and promiscuity. He only sees it as a misunderstanding; not as a misbegotten thought on his part.

A real apology is one in which the alleged perpetrator takes responsibility for his or her actions. For example, take David Letterman’s apology on national television after he had been cheating on his wife, having sex with female members of his staff. His words included:

“I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

“I’m terribly sorry that I put the staff in that position. I just wasn’t thinking ahead.” He then thanked his staff for being supportive and “putting up with something stupid I’ve gotten myself involved in.”

“When something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it. And at that point there’s only two things that can happen: either you’re going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you’re going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed.”

If Rush Limbaugh and David Letterman were the finalists in “American Apology,” you might use the form below to assess how well they did.

Or you might consider that Mr. Letterman’s sponsors stuck with him and most of Mr. Limbaugh’s have taken a hike, leaving a great deal of “dead air” on his program.

The word “apology” is somewhat of a catchall. It’s important that we have the ability to distinguish what is genuine and what is disingenuous.