Samuel Jackson’s reckless and unjustified attack on KTLA entertainment reporter Sam Rubin (which, incredibly, continues to be misrepresented by most of the news media, internet and social media) is an excellent example of how relatively trivial incidents can teach important ethics lessons. One of those lessons I did not discuss in the previous post about this episode involves the phenomenon of the gratuitous or needless apology.
To briefly recap: Rubin’s celebrity guest, Samuel L. Jackson, falsely and obnoxiously accused Rubin of confusing him with another black actor, Laurence Fishburne, thus asserting that Rubin 1) thought all blacks looked alike 2) was impliedly a bigot or racist as a result, 3) was unprepared for the interview, and 4) was unprofessional and should lose his job. Rubin apologized twice, first during Jackson’s unprovoked rant (for Rubin had not confused him with Fishburne, and it was Jackson who was confused and unprepared for the interview), and later, to everyone else, after headlines that his “racist mistake” had justly provoked Jackson were being repeated everywhere. Rubin said:
“We start right now with the beauty and the occasional pain of live television. First and foremost, I do know who Samuel L. Jackson is. I’ve interviewed him several times over the years, but never quite like the conversation we just had. I indicated to Samuel that I’d seen him during the Super Bowl, and he thought that I had confused him with the commercial Laurence Fishburne had done for a car company. Of course a “Captain America” ad had also run during the Super Bowl, but I immediately felt so dumb, I didn’t bring that up — and he gave me the shellacking that was well deserved. I pride myself on the fact — that unlike a lot of people who do this kind of work — more often than not, I really do know what I’m talking about. But I didn’t 30 minutes ago, and I’m really embarrassed about it, and I very much apologize to Samuel L. Jackson and anyone else who was offended for what was a very amateur mistake.”
This kind of apology, a coerced, false apology for conduct that warrants no apology, regret or forgiveness at all, does not appear on the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, because while it looks and sounds like an apology, it is something else entirely. The Apology Scale ranks the intent, sincerity, honesty and effectiveness of apologies for actual wrongdoing or harm. The coerced and false apology is wrongdoing that causes harm, and is the product of wrongdoing itself.
In in discussing apologies in my ethics seminars, I often cite Gibbs Rules, the running gag on CBS’s procedural drama “NCIS.” in which various characters and Gibbs himself (Jethro Gibbs, the head of the NCIS team, played by Mark Harmon) periodically quote from a long list of practical, professional and ethical “rules” devised to guide agents in their law enforcement tasks. The most cited of the rules is #6: “Never apologize — Its a sign of weakness,” a rule that Gibbs and the show’s writers borrowed from John Wayne’s character in “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.” ( “Never apologize, mister, it. It’s a sign of weakness.”) I tell attendees that #6 is wrong: sincerely apologizing for genuine harm, mistakes or misconduct is not weakness, but a sign of character, accountability, courage, respect and fairness. I realize now that Gibbs and the Duke were right about “apologies” like Rubin’s. They are not only signs of weakness, they are created by weakness, and a stronger party’s determination to exploit it.
If you read Rubin’s apology, you will note that he continued to apologize even after he had pointed out that Jackson attacked him without provocation. He wasn’t unprepared for the interview: he had interviewed the actor before. Jackson’s claim that Rubin’s reference to Jackson’s “Super Bowl commercial” was a mistake since it was Fishburne, not Jackson, who had such a commercial broadcast, was flat out wrong: a trailer for Jackson’s movie, the “Captain America” sequel, had also run during the Super Bowl broadcast, and a trailer is nothing more than a commercial for a movie. Rubin explained this too…and apologized anyway. “He felt so dumb,” he said—understandably, since his famous guest was calling him dumb on the air, though it was Jackson who was behaving stupidly. Rubin then says he “deserved” the abuse, and this is the core of the coerced apology.
He had just explained why he didn’t deserve the abuse. He had been, however, and was being (by KTLA, his employers), beaten into submission, forced into playing the role of a weak, obsequious, compliant victim begging “forgiveness” from a cruel and more powerful assailant who holds his fate in hand. This is “Thank you, sir, can I have another?” uttered by the sadistically hazed fraternity pledge. This is the abused spouse who tries to leave a vicious relationship, and then is beaten by her husband until she cries, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! It was all my fault! Tell me what you want me to do!” This is the enslaved public in a dictatorship, thanking its autocratic rulers and agreeing that whatever might be wrong is the sole fault of the dominated, because those with the power are never wrong. This is the mentally broken prisoner of war, bowing to his torturers.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? Rubin’s apology makes a statement, and it is that those with the power are always right, even when they are obviously wrong. His employers, like all Los Angeles media outlets shameless sycophants in a celebrity culture, both enforced that cultural rule and embodied it. Jackson had the power, so even though he was 100% in the wrong, Rubin apologized to him. KTLA has the power, so its employee publicly apologized because he was ordered to. Integrity? Honesty? Self-respect? Rubin forfeited all of these by apologizing for being right. It was the sign of ultimate weakness. It was the sign that Rubin acknowledges his lowly status, and that fairness and justice will only accrue to him when his superiors feel generous.
The more I consider this incident, the less sympathy I have for Sam Rubin. He knew he did nothing wrong; he knew that the video exonerates him and indicts Jackson. Nonetheless, he went on the air and perpetuated a lie, along with most of his media colleagues. It was wrong and cowardly. By allowing Jackson’s false accusation to stand and wrongly apologizing for unassailable conduct, Rubin (and KTLA, which I have no doubt insisted on his self-humiliation)…
- Capitulated to Jackson’s race-bullying, thus standing for the popular and unethical proposition that any race-based complaint from a black man must be respected.
- Endorsed the central fallacy of political correctness and the plague of offense-mongers who argue that as long as anyone is offended, the one giving offense is at fault and should apologize whether there was an actual cause of the offense or not.
- Bowed to America’s sick celebrity culture hierarchy, in which fame trumps merit, and modeled the resulting warped values for his young viewers.
- Assented to being used by current and future race-baiters as evidence of the continuing racist climate in the U.S., where even entertainment reporters so marginalize African-Americans that they treat them as monolithic and fungible—“Remember that reporter on TV who couldn’t tell Samuel L. Jackson from Laurence Fishburne? Typical white guy.”
- Advertised cowardice as a virtue, and by his actions embraced the position that keeping one’s job trumps all other considerations, including personal integrity and one’s right to fair treatment and justice.
- Finally, he established for all future guests, employers and the public that he will allow himself to be misrepresented and mistreated, even in public, because that is easier and safer than insisting on his dignity and human rights.
What should he have done? Rubin should have refused to apologize, defended himself, his professionalism and his character, and demanded an apology from Jackson. If his employers would not back him, then Rubin should have quit. Every act, no matter how trivial, that allows unethical conduct, habits and practices to prevail undermines our culture. It was Rubin’s turn to stand up for fairness and for himself, and he failed. In this instance, apologizing showed his weakness of character, and made all of us weaker.