Journalism Shouldn’t Mean Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
Why the Times should have apologized to Sarah Palin
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One of my least favorite movies of my youth was Love Story, the treacly romance of a doomed Italian American young woman (Ali MacGraw) and her WASPy Romeo (Ryan O’Neal).1 The famous line from the film, “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” is uttered once by each of them. It has never made any sense to me.
I was reminded of this in recent weeks while paying attention to the libel trial of Sarah Palin v. New York Times Co. The case can be summed up as follows: In 2017, the Times published an editorial, after the shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and others at a congressional baseball practice, which incorrectly suggested that a distasteful ad placed by Palin’s political action committee had “incited” the 2012 shooting of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killing of six others. There was no reason to believe this to be true, and the Times corrected the errors in the editorial the next day.
There is no question that the Times erred, and that this was the result of negligence, most of it on the part of editorial page chief James Bennet (who was later fired in the wake of a separate controversy). The legal issue in the case is whether Bennet’s negligence rose to the level of what is called “actual malice,” best defined by the Supreme Court as “subjective awareness of probably falsity” or “reckless disregard” of the same. My own evaluation of the evidence is that the Times’s conduct was nowhere near this level, and that, in any event, Gov. Palin suffered no tangible harm. The trial judge agreed on the first point, and the jury rejected her claim.2
The most striking element of the case for me, however, was the Times’s steadfast refusal to apologize to Palin for what it has conceded from the first was a sloppy mistake, and one that could easily have left initial readers with the false impression that Palin—not my favorite politician, but still a human being—had blood on her hands.
At the trial, Bennet testified that, on the day of the corrections, he had asked the spokeswoman for the Times to convey to a CNN reporter that, “I’m not aware that Sarah Palin has asked for an apology, but yes, I, James Bennet, do apologize to her for this mistake.” The Times declined to pass this along, we learned, because it has a policy of not apologizing for errors, just correcting them.
The Times did put out a tweet saying it was “sorry,” but that seemed confined to readers, and may have rubbed salt in the wound by omitting Palin:
Once Palin sued and Bennet learned his apology had never been conveyed, he concluded that offering an apology to her would be seen as tactical (and may also have been advised by counsel to refrain). Even at trial, with a clear opportunity, he did not look across the courtroom at Palin and apologize. Journalism apparently means never having to say you’re sorry.
Teach your children
That approach may once have made sense. But if it ever did, I don’t think it does anymore. First, let’s look at this as a juror or other “civilian” might: your parents probably taught you that if you hurt someone, even if inadvertently, you are supposed to say sorry to them. My daughter and son-in-law are teaching this to my three year old grandson right now, as they should be. Why there should be an exception if the hurt is in writing and shared with hundreds of thousands of people makes no sense to me, and probably wouldn’t to my grandson.
It's been suggested that apologizing for every correctable mistake to a published story would become rote, and devoid of sincerity. But not every correction merits an apology. Most are trivial. Take a look, for instance, at this page where ProPublica collects all the corrections it publishes (an important accountability tool, I think). To take another common example, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s first name sometimes seemed to be misspelled almost as often as it wasn’t, yielding myriad corrections. In addition, many correctable errors are the result of misinformation from credible sources, which isn’t the journalists’ fault.
On those relatively few occasions when a significant error, caused by journalistic mistakes, is reasonably hurtful to someone, even someone prominent and powerful, an apology to that person is in order. This story, also from ProPublica, on former CIA director Gina Haspel and waterboarding, has for years now seemed to me a model of how to lay it out for readers. It ends with a personal apology from my former business partner, Steve Engelberg, then and now ProPublica’s editor-in-chief. The apology is extended not only to readers but also to Haspel. I know, because I was there, that this was not easy to do, but, in a stellar career of reporting and editing as many Pulitzer winning stories as pretty much anyone in our business, I firmly believe this was one of Steve’s finest hours.
In the Palin case, it’s impossible to say if a timely apology would have avoided or concluded before trial a lawsuit that has surely harmed the Times’s own reputation. But it would have been the right thing to do, and, as your parents might have told you, it couldn’t have hurt to try.
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I confess that I saw the film under less than ideal circumstances, in Mexico City in the summer of 1971, dubbed into Spanish with English subtitles, and with another of the members of the student trip I was on repeatedly sharing with the entire theater every time particular suburban scenes flashed by, “that’s my hometown.”
The widespread suggestions, both before and after the trial, that the Palin case is a plausible vehicle for the Supreme Court revisiting the constitutional law of libel are, by the way, almost certainly off the mark. The case involves political speech and what is called a “pervasive” (widely famous) public figure. If the Court takes a case for this purpose, it would very likely choose one involving what’s called a “limited purpose” public figure, and a subject less core to the constitutional guarantee of a free press. Beyond all that, the case is governed by a New York state statute that enshrines the actual malice rule.