Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Art of Celebrity Apologies

I did a recent interview with The Clyde Fitch Report which dealt with the phenomenon of celebrity apologies. If you'd like to see it, click here. But the topic brings up a couple of complementary issues which I'd like to explore.

First off, what do we mean when we say a celebrity apology? I think we would all agree that when a celebrity gets some kind of blowback from the media for a statement, that's usually a good time for an apology. The level of apology can depend on several factors - for example, how were the offensive comments communicated? Did they come in the form of a court deposition, such as Paula Deen? Were they conveyed second hand, through another source, and if so, how credible is that source? Were they in the course of an interview, such as with Marlon Brando's comments on live television with Larry King about Hollywood being controlled by Jews?

The next factor is the likeability of the celebrity - and this is crucial. This can be controlled by many things, such as the celebrity's good looks (or lack thereof), their charm, their public persona. Athletes, if they are still active, can wipe away our misgivings simply by performing at an unusually high level or winning a championship. As was said of Babe Ruth, "You can't boo a home run." I would argue there is vaguely a political component at work as well, but this depends on what was said, and the person saying it. Paula Deen's case illustrates this.

You will recall in John Irving's "The World According to Garp," Garp's mother Jenny Fields writes a book entitled "Sexual Suspect," about the plight of women who do not allow themselves to be defined by their associations with men. Some celebrities are what we might call "cultural suspects" - in other words, you don't know what their politics are, but you think you do. If the media perceives the person as progressive, (and this can depend on any number of factors) they may be willing to believe or accept their apology. But if they think the person is conservative, even if the celebrity isn't particularly conservative or even political, then their leeway may be a little more tenuous, especially if they've said something that can be interpreted as racist, bigoted, homophobic or otherwise offensive. I don't mean to say that ideology is the total determining factor. I just think it's one of them. It should be said that ideology has for some replaced personal conduct as the determining factor in whether someone is morally good or bad. Activism for some causes can overshadow an injudicious word or a few bad decisions.

Once you determine the level of apology needed, then it's time to decide how abject the celebrity should be. A pet peeve of many people I've talked to is what we might call the "non-apology apology," which goes basically something like this:

"When I was on camera, I made a few statements about the killing of small kittens that may have offended some people who were watching. If someone was offended, then I sincerely apologize." 

This is the kind of apology that is usually crafted by a publicist and e-mailed out to the bloggers. There is very little here that acknowledges any kind of wrong. It basically telegraphs that the celebrity does not personally feel they have said anything that was, in fact, offensive. Instead, it merely apologizes for the bruised sensibilities of those idiots out there who obviously need to grow up.

There is the opposite extreme, as exhibited by Ms. Deen. It's interesting that her weeping on the Today Show was deemed somehow insufficient to the moment. Which brings up another question - when is it appropriate for a celebrity to cry? One might argue that the celebrity is caught in a Catch-22 - If they cry, it illustrates their humanity and makes them more than just a name that we either celebrate or resent. However, humanizing them may in fact make us more susceptible to our harsh judgments, since we no longer see them as larger than life.

In his book "Popular Crime," Bill James makes a point that American media has entered what may be termed the second golden age of yellow journalism. Yellow journalism flourished in the world of towns with multiple newspapers, which eventually competed with early radio. In an attempt to get eyeballs, newspapers were as gritty, turf-protective and territorial as the newsboys who literally fought for space on sidewalks. This inspired some papers to make up news, or to distort minor news out of proportion to its relative importance. Remember Charles Foster Kane's famous line - "If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough." This ended, James argues, with the excesses in the coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping and trial of Bruno Hauptmann, and with the consolidation of some newspapers. By the coming of television, the classy way of journalism - objectivity, understatement, deciding the relative importance of news items as opposed to celebrity gossip - was ascendant.

That is until the coming of cable television, and eventually the Internet and social networks. Now, a giant beast needs constant feeding for information. And rather than a few outlets deciding how to categorize the importance of this or that item, instead the page views and search engine optimization do the task. Crime and entertainment news is once again ascendent. That doesn't mean that celebrity kerfuffles aren't worthy of our attention - as James points out, we gravitate toward them because they usually illustrate larger narratives. In the case of most celebrity apologies, they reenforce the dominant story of public discourse in American society over the last fifty years - the revolution in civil rights among race, gender, class and sexual lines. And an emphasis on supposedly trivial news is by no means a new phenomenon brought on by the Internet. Just a cursory reading of Mark Twain's autobiography will tell you that.

The celebrity apology, as I indicated earlier, hinges on a crucial point - how much do we look up to these people? Do we idolize them? Do we want to be them? Or do they simply serve as a convenient target for our disgust? Does their presence in our collective consciousness illustrate for us some great truth about the good or the bad in the world? The scene in Oliver Stone's Nixon, when Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) has just decided to resign personifies this struggle. Nixon, wandering through the White House, unintentionally finds himself confronted by the portrait of his nemesis, his one-time colleague, the ghost hanging over his presidency, the martyred Jack Kennedy.

"When they look at you, they see what they want to be," he tells the portrait. "When they look at me, they see who they are."

When should a celebrity apologize? Any celebrity has to realize that there is a battle of warring percentages out there for anyone with fame - the slice that like them, the slice that doesn't know they exist, and the slice that hates their guts. For some celebrities, a misstep can upset the delicate boundaries of those percentages. Some people will only know them because of their impolitic words or deeds. Others will have liked them in the past, but write them off. There may even be some people who didn't like them, but come over once they see the media piling on, in effect. For some, a celebrity will be their stand-in on the world stage. A threat to that person is a threat to them, personally. Or conversely, that celebrities success at avoiding public persecution will be a personal affront to them.

On a spiritual level though, the celebrity apology can leave us with one indisputable fact. Many seek solace in the promises of Christianity because of the assurance that Christ's sacrifice allows for free, unlimited grace. The idea of an entire lifetime's sins washed away and forgotten forever is staggering to us, because we know that it is beyond our own abilities to offer the same to anyone else, even ourselves.

We can forgive the famous - and even the infamous - many things, but at some moment, there is a point of no return. To apologize means to seek forgiveness. Our reactions to these apologies, which grow more ridiculous seemingly with each new occurrence, remind us that while God may freely forgive all things, we are more exacting, and less gracious.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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