Eric Hrin: News Commentary: 'The Age of The Apology' Public figures practice the art of the apology
I was watching a commercial for some old country music songs the other day when I saw a black-and-white clip of Brenda Lee singing her 1960 hit "I'm Sorry."
It's a sentiment that you hear a lot these days from public figures. That category includes people serving in elected office as well as those considered to be "celebrities" - in other words, anyone in the public eye.
Certainly, their apologies get a lot of press.
I did a Google search on Gov. Chris Christie's recent apology for the so-called "Bridgegate" scandal and found several results.
"The Los Angeles Times" had this headline: "Chris Christie scandal: Is saying 'I'm sorry' going to be enough?"
Over at "The Wall Street Journal" website, a column had the headline of "Chris Christie and the Sorry State of Apologizing."
And there have been others feeling contrite about their own slip-ups recently: Dennis Rodman, Shia LeBoeuf, even the current "Bachelor" from ABC show of the same name. They all generated headlines with their apologies for various missteps.
And in western Bradford County, there was an apology recently.
At the last Canton Borough Council meeting, Councilman Kurt Bastion, who is the borough's street superintendent, had some rather lively responses, when questioned by a member of the audience.
Andrew Campbell, who at one time worked for the street department and made an unsuccessful run for council this fall, asked about the plowing of Clinton Street in some previous snow storms. He didn't think it had gotten enough attention.
In response, Bastion told him rather hotly, "Well, Mr. Campbell, for your information, that street has just as high a priority as all the rest of them, and is done just as many times as the rest of them, and we've had comments from a few people living on that street that they didn't want it plowed nor did they want any salt or cinders put on it because it was tracking out on to the dirt road."
"That street has been done," he assured him. He said another street employee took care of it, and added, "I've went back over it."
Campbell disputed him, and Bastion responded, "And maybe you could be a little courteous and not park your van halfway out in the street so we can get around it."
Offering some insight, borough administrator Amy Seeley noted the difficulty of keeping the streets clear when the snow keeps falling in a heavy storm. "When you're getting numerous snows like that â¦ you can't keep on top of some of it, and the guys go home for a break and it does build up, just as it did on the PennDOT roads; there's only so much you can do," she said.
Bastion also made some rather testy comments later in the council meeting as he defended the street department's performance.
Afterwards, some people in audience accused him of being "quite rude" and "hostile."
Eventually, Bastion apologized.
He said, "Anybody that feels that I've been rude, I apologize. But you people aren't the ones that have to listen to all the crap that's been written on Facebook."
He was concerned about people spreading "one rumor after another." "You begin to get a little irritated and agitated."
"When I took this position as street superintendent, I had absolutely no training, none."
"I had this ball dropped in my lap and I learned by doing, and if I didn't know how to do it, I asked questions and I found out the proper way to do it."
He again apologized if he seemed a little irritated and aggravated, but said he was, in fact, feeling that way. "But if I come off that way, I'm sorry."
It seems like we're living in what I like to call The Age of The Apology. Whenever a public figure takes a misstep or what is perceived as a misstep, an apology follows.
But what are we to make of apologies in this day and age? On the surface, they seem to make sense. You do something inappropriate or offensive, and you try to make amends by reaching out with an apology.
But how sincere are public figures' apologies?
We can make judgments about whether we think an apology is genuine, but in reality only the person making the apology, and possibly a few of those closest to him or her, know for sure whether it's real or just an empty gesture.
And what effect do they have? It seems awfully naÃ¯ve to think that the mere act of an apology makes everything better. And apologies are so commonplace these days that they run the risk of losing their effectiveness and impact. And do people even appreciate or accept them?
For example, I did an Internet search on Paula Deen's apology and came up with this headline on a USA Today story: "Paula Deen's 'Today' apology didn't impress experts." Walmart apparently wasn't impressed either. The sub-headline on the story noted that the retailer parted ways with Deen. The Food Network also dropped her. So, in this case, an apology apparently didn't have any effect.
Certainly, one of the factors that spur apologies these days is when a particular group or organization expresses outrage at someone's comments. Some call this "political correctness." That wasn't the case with Bastion's apology, but how many times have we seen a group offended by what someone says? That offending party then makes an official statement expressing remorse.
The recent "Duck Dynasty" flap resulted in more than one apology. Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" made what were described in the media as "anti-gay" comments, and he later responded with what was apparently supposed to be an apology. As published by multiple news outlets, Robertson said in his apology that he "would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."
Then, Cracker Barrel restaurant pulled the "Duck Dynasty" merchandise from its stores. The restaurant chain apparently didn't want to offend anyone by carrying the wares. However, the restaurant later put the items back and apologized. According to a Fox News report of Cracker Barrel's apology, Cracker Barrel said it was "flat out wrong" for taking away the merchandise.
I'm not going to make a judgment as to whether Bastion's apology or anyone else's was the right or wrong thing to do, or whether I think they were effective. What impressed me more at the Canton Borough Council meeting in which Bastion apologized was comments by council member Darryl Jannone. He seems to be on the right track. Rather than just offering an apology, he put forth some ideas and suggestions. He also told Campbell that the borough would look into his concerns. I asked Jannone to expand on his comments.
First, he addressed comments from the public.
Jannone said, "At the last council meeting I did state that we, as a council, need feedback from our community and residents that is productive and professional in order to be effective. The entire purpose is to make Canton a better place to live and work. Any agenda other than that is frankly, a waste of time. Bringing a problem or concern up to the borough council is good start but I want that problem or concern to be accompanied with a recommendation or possible solution. We live in a cost culture environment where every tax payer dollar spent must be spent wisely. The diversity, skill sets and wide range of experiences that Canton residents already have can be very useful in making sound, fiscally smart decisions that ultimately will make Canton a better place to live and work. Someone out in our own community may very well have an idea or solution that can directly impact morale, welfare and overall effectiveness within our community."
On the flip side, I asked him how council members should behave toward the public.
Jannone said, "From my perspective, council members are the elected voice of the residents so I see our mission as one of assistance, protection and defense of our borough. Therefore, we as a council have an obligation to respond in a timely and professional manner with a focus on the mission at hand and being stewards of taxpayers dollars. Bottom line up front - save the drama and handle the mission. That applies to everyone trying to 'make it matter.'"
He also offered thoughts on a system in which people can make comments. He said, "As a council and with the efforts of our borough administrator, we are looking at ways to enhance communication between the council and our residents. A resident's presence at the borough meeting to make comments is the primary platform for communication; however, that may not always be possible due to weather, transportation, etc., so we would like to find alternative means of enhancing communication with our residents. Again, the goal is the same â¦ make and keep Canton a great place to live and work."
When asked for comment as to whether Jannone's ideas would be implemented, Seeley said, "we're working on things."
Jannone's suggestions offer a way for council to move forward in a positive way, as compared to an apology, which doesn't provide anything other than an expression of remorse.
But while there appears to be some positive progress being made in Canton, it's probably a good bet that apologies by public figures - and all the issues that come with them - will continue, whether in our own backyard or miles away.
My advice is to be gracious and accept apologies from public figures if they are offered, but take them for what they are. Do your best to judge if they are sincere. If you are convinced of their sincerity and are satisfied, keep buying that person's products or keep watching their TV show - or continue supporting them with your votes. If not, then you can do the opposite. Don't spend your money on the bobblehead doll with their likeness. Don't tune into their show. Don't vote to re-elect them.
That's about all you can do in The Age of The Apology.
Eric Hrin is a writer for The Daily/Sunday Review, and can be reached at (570) 297-5251; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.