Is “I Didn’t Mean That Thing I Said” A Credible Excuse?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 5, 2014 – 5:02 am

Comedian Jonah Hill was caught on video last weekend telling a photographer who was following him, “Suck my dick, you faggot.”

I have big issues with paparazzi (and the outlets that buy their photos) who make a living violating the personal space and privacy of celebrities for profit; that stars snap occasionally in such situations seems like an understandable human response.

But what caught my attention was Jonah Hill’s first apology, in which he said: “In that moment, I said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any group of people.”

Hill’s response seems to fit into the de rigueur crisis response in such situations, which goes something like this: “Although I said what I said, it doesn’t represent who I am or what I believe.” (Hill’s apology on Tuesday’s The Tonight Show seemed sincere, and I doubt he’ll incur much reputational damage.)

Alec Baldwin used a similar approach after unleashing gay slurs last year: “As someone who fights against homophobia, I apologize.” Catch that? Although he said what he said, his words don’t represent his views.

After Mel Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks, he apologized by saying: “Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite.”

Even (former) disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling tried a similar statement: “25 percent of my home game are black people and I love them.”

Here’s my question: Does the “What I said doesn’t represent what I feel” approach work? Is it credible?

Alec Baldwin Tweet

In Jonah Hill’s case, it might. He seemed genuinely aggrieved by his choice of words and their impact. And yet…if there wasn’t a place somewhere in him that viewed gay people differently, would he have chosen to lash out by calling someone a faggot? If Mel Gibson didn’t view Jews at least somewhat negatively, would he have used anti-Semitic slurs? Isn’t the language we choose representative of the thoughts we think?

Personally, I’m finding this type of response less and less credible. Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld), who destroyed his career after a particularly ugly rant against African Americans (he repeatedly screamed the n-word at black audience members in a comedy club), may have gotten his response right: “I’ll get to the force field of this hostility, why it’s there,” he said.

That seems to be a more credible approach. I’d rather see a similar type of response in these instances: “Clearly, my choice of words tells me that I have some work to do on myself. Those words are ugly, hurtful, and even dangerous–and I will do everything in my power to understand the source of my prejudices and do the work it takes to extinguish them. In the meantime, I apologize for perpetuating the hurt so many people have endured.”

Does The "I Didn't Mean What I Said Approach" Work?

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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