Where Rush Limbaugh’s apology went wrong


Radio show host Rush Limbaugh’s apology to law student Sandra Fluke showed a couple of classic errors. (MICAH WALTER/REUTERS)

After his insulting comments about Fluke during his program last week, when he called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” the backlash began for Limbaugh. Twitter exploded with anger toward the controversial radio host. Advertisers began leaving his show. The president even called Fluke himself to express his support for her.

What Limbaugh should have done at that point—at the very least—is to issue an unqualified, unquestionably sincere apology. Instead, he sent out a lukewarm statement of regret that defended his position, attempted to explain his bizarre brand of “humor,” and offered an apology that sounded more reluctant than it did remorseful: “My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir.” Not the best? Really?

It’s not like he hasn’t had plenty of recent examples he could have followed. After talk show host Ed Schultz called Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut” and a “talk slut,” he admitted his remarks were “terribly vile,” asked for her forgiveness, and said “this is the lowest of low for me.” After fashion designer Kenneth Cole made comments about the Arab Spring that some saw as insensitive, he immediately called his remarks “absolutely inappropriate” in a post on Facebook. And following an ESPN headline that used a phrase that could be read as an ethnic slur against Asian-American basketball phenom Jeremy Lin, a company executive tweeted “there’s no defense for the indefensible. All we can offer are our apologies, sincere though incalculably inadequate.”

The difference between these apologies and Limbaugh’s is that they are absolute—they admit their choice of words was much worse than “not the best,” and they do not come paired with rationales for the offensive language. And like all good apologies, they typically come with some kind of concession. ESPN dismissed or suspended their employees for their actions; MSNBC suspended Schultz for a period of time. Other genuine apologies offer other forms of concession—from JetBlue founder David Neeleman’s apology after the airline’s infamous ice storm fiasco, which ushered in a new customer bill of rights, to the credit Steve Jobs offered iPhone users after a price change that angered customers. When leaders get an apology right, corporate communications expert Paul Argenti has written here before, it’s typically because they did it quickly, included a concession, and were absolutely sincere in their expression of regret.

Limbaugh’s apology, meanwhile, has been called a textbook case of what not to say. As a result, the move does not appear to be making things better. The issue remains very much in the headlines. Support for Fluke is gaining, not losing, steam. And more of Limbaugh’s advertisers are leaving, even after the apology was offered up.

Limbaugh, who has a history of making controversial statements, is even less credible because of the nature of the original offense. According to reports, he “lambasted” her for three days, making it impossible to believe this was a mere slip of the tongue or simply a momentary poor choice of words. This was a personal attack against a student activist, not a public official or celebrity (though no one should be subject to such comments). As a result, his apology should have been even more absolute and unwavering, rather than less.

Just as the punishment should fit the crime, the apology should fit the offense. When it doesn’t, an action that’s supposed to make things better can simply make things worse.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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