February 25, 2013

(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The Onion would have had to exert itself to issue a more vile tweet. Last night it said something about 9-year-old actress and Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis that cannot be repeated here, other than to say that The Onion — trying, as ever, to explore the boundaries of satire –used perhaps the most offensive term available for the characterization of a woman. And they used it in reference to a girl.

The offending tweet disappeared from The Onion’s feed within an hour of its having surfaced. An apology bubbled up today. The Onion CEO Steve Hannah wrote, in part:

On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting. No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

In an otherwise phenomenal post on the matter, Choire Sicha of The Awl called the apology “not that great,” “terrible,” “dumb” and insisted that it “read like the business department freaking out, instead of editorial saying, ‘Hey, we got together and really talked about this.’” The Erik Wemple Blog stays out of the business of apology hyper-critiquing, if only because news organizations so rarely issue them to begin with. If there is a straight-up confession of wrongdoing and something even approaching contrition, that’s a victory!

That’s not to say there’s nothing eerie about the apology of The Onion. There is, and it’s this line: “We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.” That is a popular promise. Just recently, outed plagiarist, liar and fabricator Jonah Lehrer earlier this month told an audience at a Knight Foundation seminar that “what I clearly need is a new list of rules, a stricter set of SOPs. Whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted,” he pledged, “Every conversation with a subject will be tape-recorded and transcribed.” In January, the Atlantic apologized for an advertorial package for the Church of Scientology that drew Twitter howls for how minimally it differed from your average Atlantic article: “We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.”

A preemptive attempt to head off complaints that the Erik Wemple Blog is alleging equivalency among these three mistakes. We’re not. The Onion’s sin was kiddo-misogyny of unfathomable depth; Jonah Lehrer is Jonah Lehrer; and The Atlantic’s apology and policy-updating appeared almost an overreaction to the Twitter overreaction over what was a minor infraction.

What they have in common, though, is human breakdowns, lapses in judgment and ethics that resist simple explanation. That’s why procedures are always the would-be solutions; they promise a bureaucratic safety net through which no comparable transgression will ever wiggle. The trouble is that if the new procedures end up in the same hands as the original mistakes, they may not prevent much. Procedures never, ever replace judgment.

Not that everyone even agrees that The Onion should have apologized. A former Onion staffer tells BuzzFeed, for instance, that the site’s apology is a bad precedent with unfortunate ramifications for editorial freedom. Good thing that staffer is former.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.