Recovering from the journalism crisis: journalists must learn to apologize

Two weeks ago, Georgetown University held a symposium on the state of journalism. When asked what the biggest problem facing the press is, Erik Wemple, a media critic at Georgetown University, replied: Washington Post, He came up with a surprisingly compelling and honest answer: journalists need to learn to apologize when they make mistakes.

Wemple’s comments (which can be found in this video) were as follows:

News organizations, when they publish these big stories, they put their soul into them. And when they turn out to be (censored), it never, ever takes them forever to accept it. So people on the outside say, “Why can’t you just admit that this is wrong?” No, no! We put a lot of effort into this. We edited it five times. It went through 15 layers. We reviewed it with lawyers. There is an emotional attachment to the work.

When the media was reticent (like Rolling Stone’s fake gang rape story at the University of Virginia), it took them months or years (to admit it was false). They eventually had to commission an investigation.

I think that’s what most media crises have in common. It’s not just about the first mistake, but about the rejection, the stubborn resistance to change or to correct. Editors say, “When we make a mistake, we correct it,” but that’s not usually the case.

Wemple has hit the nail on the head. The media is not trusted, and all the conferences and articles in the world are not going to help them out of this mess. What will help is if the media industry learns to do what it once did with some honour: apologize for mistakes.

Don’t laugh. The media knew how to do it. The best example is the story of Richard Jewell. In 1996, after Jewell, a security guard, discovered a bomb at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park and helped clear the crowd, the press declared him a hero.

Days later, a law enforcement source told reporter Kathy Scruggs that Jewell was the FBI’s prime suspect. Atlanta Constitution Magazine published the story that made Jewell the villain. CNN reported that Young Men’s Christian Association For the next 88 days, Jewell was hounded by reporters. He was one of the first victims of what would become known as the “media trial.” When his name was finally cleared, Jewell, who died in 2007, sued the police. The New York Post, NBC News and CNN and reached an agreement with all three.

In what would be considered a surprising gesture today, CNN producer Henry Schuster wrote an apology to Jewell: “I made Richard Jewell famous and ruined his life.”

Imagine a journalist in 2024 with this kind of integrity and self-reflection. Russiagate, the Catholic students in Covington, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Kyle Rittenhouse, the conservatives who raised the alarm about President Joe Biden’s health years ago and were mocked, the kid who painted his face for the Kansas City Chiefs and was accused of wearing blackface — the list of people the press has harmed is long. Yet journalists now seem sociopaths, incapable of remorse or human feelings. They will never just apologize.

Scruggs, who reported on Jewell for the Deputy Executive Committee, She may not have apologized, but her conscience was burdened enough that the Richard Jewell story haunted her for the rest of her life. “She was never at peace or at peace with this story,” Mike Kiss, one of her editors, once said. “It haunted her until her dying breath. It squashed her like a June beetle on the sidewalk.”

Scruggs is a symbol of the transition from one form of journalism to another: from the kind of responsible journalism that slowed down enough in 1996 to realize Jewell couldn’t have been the terrorist to the modern age of death by a thousand accusations on social media. Scruggs and the remorseful CNN producer who publicly apologized to Jewell have been replaced by the From the Washington Post Taylor Lorenz and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.

Journalists today are like active alcoholics who simply won’t admit to having committed any crimes, or even that they have a problem. The first straw was Watergate. The scandal of the 1970s that ousted Richard Nixon from power was a big party for the press. The atmosphere in the media and on the left was glamorous and filled writers with a sense of intoxicated invincibility.

Over the past 50 years, the press has tried to reproduce the hype of that era. Journalism is no longer a way to deliver community news to the masses, but a means to destroy someone powerful and become a celebrity. Just as an alcoholic begins to take ethical shortcuts and needs more and more alcohol to have less and less effect, post-Watergate journalists became careless and even disinterested in the facts. Errors and lies became more and more common.

Apologize? Forget it. They can’t even admit they have a problem.


Mark Judge is an award-winning journalist and author of The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the new American Stasi. He is also the author of God and man at Georgetown Prep, damn senators, and A tremor of happiness.