Diplomacy Tips From the Fourth Estate

The United States and China are at an impasse. The Chinese want us to say we’re sorry that we had a surveillance plane snooping on them from what appears to have been international air space and that we’re sorry our plane collided with one of theirs, killing a Chinese pilot, even though there’s some evidence that the collision was actually the Chinese pilot’s fault. We don’t want to say we’re sorry, not only because the U.S. doesn’t appear to be at fault but also because it might set a bad precedent for future incidents. What’s called for is some kind of pseudoapology–something that will get the Chinese to cool down but that won’t actually give ground. President Bush tried his hand at this today:

I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret one of their airplanes was lost. And our prayers go out to the pilot, his family. Our prayers are also with our own servicemen and women, and they need to come home. Our message to the Chinese is, we should not let this incident destabilize relations.

Not very good, is it? It occurs to Chatterbox that perhaps Bush and his staff haven’t had to do this sort of thing much in the past. That got Chatterbox thinking about the group of people that probably has the most experience issuing pseudoapologies to aggrieved-but-not-wronged parties to whom it cannot (or prefers not to) say, simply, “Piss off!” That group is, of course, journalists. Joe Blow calls to say that something you wrote or edited is deeply offensive. Occasionally Joe Blow is right, and it’s appropriate to issue an apology or correction. More often, though, Joe Blow is just mad. You don’t want him to sue you. What do you say? Most of the time, Chatterbox finds himself saying (often over and over again), “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It sounds sympathetic; it’s sincere (I am sorry Joe feels that way, or at least sorry that he called me to tell me he feels that way); it’s dignified; and it does nothing to undermine my work product. (As Chatterbox’s friend Bill Barol points out in his daily Weblog, “I’m sorry you feel that way” has long been a handy tool for communicating with a dumped boyfriend or girlfriend.)

Chatterbox invited fellow members of the Fourth Estate to share some of their own techniques for calming irate people to whom no apology is due. In reading what follows, please remember that these comments don’t necessarily constitute advice on how Bush should deal with the U.S.-Chinese impasse. Indeed, in many cases, they don’t appear relevant to that conflict at all. Nonetheless, they are all quite entertaining, and some of them might actually help the White House puzzle out what to tell the Chinese.

Joe Conason, New York Observer columnist:

“My editors wrote the headline/pull quote/photo caption.”
“The editors/lawyers took that sentence out.”
“The editors/lawyers put that sentence in.”
“My notes don’t reflect what you’re telling me you said.”
“I wish you had called back before my deadline.”
“Please send a letter to the editor.”

Lloyd Grove, “Reliable Source” columnist, Washington Post:

1) “I hear ya.”
2) “I certainly had no intention of giving you any heartburn, and I’m sorry you’re feeling put out.”
3) “I’ll make it up to you.”
4) “Oh piss off!”

Walter Isaacson, editorial director, Time Inc.:

I tend to ask irate callers or writers to tell me all the facts as they see them and let them vent their emotions. Then I tell them I understand fully what they are saying and repeat back to them what I understand them to be saying. If there is a disagreement over some facts, I tell them our view of the facts. As happened in the original U.S.-China “Shanghai Accords,” it sometimes helps if both sides lay out the situation as they see it and, where they disagree, state that they are fully aware of the other side’s position.

Tim Carvell, senior editor, eCompanyNow:

I’d respond with something along the lines of, “Jeez, I’m really sorry to hear that you came away from the story with that sense of things. I felt that it was a fairly positive piece that gave you a chance to address those charges against you–something that I felt you did quite well, by the way. I think the story makes it possible for readers to figure out who’s right in this instance.” And then, if the objections continue, and increase in volume, and things seem to be going in circles: “Well, you know, that’s exactly what I told my editors, and they just wouldn’t listen. You could take this up with them if you want to. Let me give you their e-mail address, and you can write them a note, and we’ll check it out and run it on our Letters-to-the-Editor page.”

Steven Brill, chairman and CEO, Brill’s Content:

First, I always say I will investigate or re-investigate whatever facts the person may think are in dispute, even if I don’t think they are in dispute. That’s because I may be wrong and because it also calms people down. There’s obviously an analogy here, as I expect part of the resolution of this mess will be some kind of pledge of a U.S. or U.S-Chinese “investigation.” Second, if it’s a matter of fairness and balance, I might apologize for the perception that what we wrote seemed unfair when looked at from the subject’s perspective. That’s also analogous, since our country would go nuts if a Chinese spy plane operating off the coast of NYC killed one of our pilots and then landed at Kennedy. We’d strip the plane down and send the parts we don’t want back in a box.

Alex Heard, executive editor, Wired:

“[First name of offended party here]! Glad you called, because I was just about to phone you. What’s up?”

[Receive tirade.]

“Uh huh. Uh huh. Yep. Mmm-hm. Yes, exactly.

“First of all, I’d love to see that in a letter to the editor. Now, can I add one thing? The watchword here is collegiality, and as I’m sure you can appreciate–God knows someone with your responsibilities would have to–achieving that is a delicate balancing act, like carrying a double-edged sword on a tightrope. As much as I may agree or disagree with a particular piece we publish–and I think you can imagine how I felt about this one–I also know that you know that I have a responsibility to fight like hell to maintain it. And–

“Oops, hold on. Apparently, there’s a production emergency, and all the kids over there are waving their arms and shrieking. Can I call you back? Better yet, call me next time you’re in town. We’ll go to a baseball game. …”

William F. Buckley, political columnist and author:

Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi.
[Chatterbox has no idea what this means.]

Quite a few journalists have yet to respond to Chatterbox’s query, including, oddly, Mrs. Chatterbox. (Are they afraid they’ll give away trade secrets?) Additional submissions will be posted as they come in.

[Update, April 6: Buckley has graciously agreed to translate “Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi”: “What is permitted to Jove is not permitted to swine (literally, cows).” To spare Chatterbox future social embarrassment, a reader thoughtfully recommended bookmarking this guide to Latin maxims.]

Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor, the New Republic and

Since no one has ever complained about anything I have ever written, I find your question somewhat hypothetical. I have a “friend,” however, who has tried these techniques:

  • Invite the aggrieved party to write a rebuttal article. Since writing is work, rebuttal articles are almost never actually received. Thus, the White House should invite the Chinese government to write an article on international aviation safety. Possible downside: The Chinese will assign 6,000 imprisoned dissident scholars to this task, and they will produce a 1,000-page manuscript full of coded pleas for Western help. The article could then be published in the Federal Register, where it would appear brief.

  • Pretend to be completely amazed that the aggrieved party is even aggrieved, pointing out that being scandalously denounced is great for fund raising and for status with your constituents. Half the conservative interest groups in Washington angle to plant stories against themselves in the Washington Post, so that they can cry persecution when fund raising. Using this logic, the White House should tell China that the collision was a huge break for the Chinese position, allowing Beijing to play victim in international politics. But we should privately warn Beijing that it shouldn’t expect favors like this all the time.
  • Cite the First Amendment. The White House should bring this up because the Chinese will have no idea what it means.

Debra Dickerson, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of An American Story:

In my experience, the more wrong a person is, the less of even the flimsiest apology it takes to soothe them. Just enough so they can tell their friends how they had you on the phone for a half-hour, straightening you out.

I have never offered a pseudoapology. I am inclined to do, within the bounds of morality, whatever it takes to get a socially relevant story. Usually, this involves saying nothing (or nothing but banalities like “Really? How interesting”), knowing that a source takes your silence for agreement or approval. Later, I express regret that they didn’t like the final product and express genuine sympathy for seeing themselves portrayed in a way that makes them unhappy. I let them rant and rave, up to a point. I seriously reconsider what I wrote in light of their arguments and acknowledge anything that’s problematic. I respectfully defend myself. I express regret that I’ve made them unhappy, and then I say goodbye.