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Analysis of Public Celebrity Apologies in America

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3788 words Published: 10th Oct 2017

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Devin Black

Julia Tofantšuk

Their circumstances and effects via analyzing specific cases


Recently, I have become aware of a trend that has been sweeping across America – the celebrity apology, or precisely, the non-apology. I think I have always been aware of the constant apologies made by celebrities, but it has only been in the past year when I have actually paid attention to the words they were using to apologize, and under what circumstances they were apologizing.

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In fact, the exact moment when I became infatuated with the celebrity apology was when I was listening to a broadcast of the Opie and Anthony Radio Show in March 2014 and the hosts were discussing the numerous celebrity apologies that had been made during the previous week. Their discussion about celebrity apologies began to consume the show daily, until they officially established an “Apology Clock” on June 5, 2014 (Apology Clock, 2014). The experiment was to see if they could go ten days without a celebrity apology. The results showed that they could not, as there was at least one new apology a day and more often than not there were apologies from multiple celebrities. Their research ended unexpectedly one month later when one of the hosts became a victim of the celebrity apology. I will discuss more about this later in the paper.

For the purposes of this paper, I will begin by defining the terms and scope the paper covers. Secondly, I will present some cases from a wide range of circumstances which celebrities apologized, and the results of their apology. Finally, I will discuss Americans’ reaction to the celebrity apology.


According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a celebrity is defined as “a person who is famous.” For this paper, the definition will be narrowed to only a person who is recognizable in North America and broadened to include corporations, as these are considered individuals under the law.

An apology is defined as “an expression of regret for having done or said something wrong.” For this paper, we also need to consider the definition of a non-apology apology, which is defined as “a statement that has the form of an apology but does not express the expected contrition.” An example of a non-apology apology would be saying “I’m sorry that you feel that way” to someone who has been offended by a statement. This apology does not admit that there was anything wrong with the remarks made, and additionally, it may be taken as insinuating that the person taking offense was excessively thin-skinned or irrational in taking offense at the remarks in the first place (Lazare, 2005).

Case Studies of celebrity apologies and the results of the apology

There are hundreds, if not thousands of examples of celebrity apologies. For this paper, the time frame of the case studies of celebrity apologies examined will begin in 1998, well after the advent of the Internet. This starting point was chosen because the Internet disseminates information almost effortlessly, therefore more people would be aware of the apologies given by celebrities.

Furthermore, the case studies offered are examples of the wide range of circumstances under which a celebrity has had to apologize. There are countless more examples to choose from, but the following examples provide a general overview, so the scope has had to be narrowed.

Case study 1: Bill Clinton apologizes for having an affair

“Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong … I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”

On August 17, 1998, President Bill Clinton stood in the White House pressroom and apologized to the American people for having an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. When the affair first became public, Bill Clinton denied having a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky even though she offered circumstantial evidence to a Senate investigating committee. The news of this extra-marital affair and the resulting investigation eventually led to the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998 by the U.S. House of Representatives and his subsequent acquittal on all impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in a 21-day Senate trial (Posner, 2009).

This apology most likely saved his presidency. His apology was emotional and appeared sincere. He was able to connect with Americans, while at the same time admitting he was wrong and asking for forgiveness (Bill Clinton apologizing for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, 2008).

However, what makes the circumstances of this apology important is the fact that the political motivations of the Republican Party forced President Clinton into a position where he had to apologize. The results, politically, led to the rise of the Republican Party from 2000 to 2008, and an ever increasing motivation to use the personal affairs of politicians as a weapon in elections, and politics in general.

Case study 2: Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction

On February 1, 2004 during the half-time show of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were performing when suddenly Timberlake removed an article of Jackson’s clothing, revealing an exposed breast to a live television audience. This event has been termed Nipplegate by the media (Apologetic Jackson says ‘costume reveal’ went awry, 2004). The next day Jackson apologized to the public “to anyone who was offended.” This is an example of the non-apology apology.

There are several reasons why the circumstances surrounding this particular non-apology apology is important. First of all, a wardrobe malfunction is considered to be an accident, so the question remains why an apology was even necessary. Secondly, the American sensitivity to nudity is revealed to have a low threshold, while their sensitivity threshold to a violent sport, American football, is high. This means that Americans are more offended by nudity than violence. Finally, the results of this apology led to the Federal Communications Commission to impose higher fines and regulations concerning obscenity in broadcast media on public airwaves, which still continue today (Ahrens, 2006).

Case study 3: Michael Richards “nigger” rant

During a November 17, 2006 performance, Michael Richards, a stand-up comedian who became popular for the role of “Krammer” he played on the successful American sitcom Seinfeld, shouted a racially charged response to black hecklers in the audience, shouting “He’s a nigger!” several times and referring to lynching (Farhi, 2006).

This is only one example of an apology or non-apology apology based on racism, religion, or sexual orientation. Other celebrities who have had to apologize for racist rants or, more importantly, opinions based on race; include Mel Gibson, Gary Oldman, and many others (Hare, 2014).

However, what makes this apology most interesting is the public’s initial reaction and later action. Richards made a public apology on the Late Show with David Letterman, when Jerry Seinfeld was the guest, saying:

“For me to be at a comedy club and to flip out and say this crap, I’m deeply, deeply sorry. I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this.”

What happened next is surprising; the audience initially laughed during uncomfortable pauses in Richards’ explanation and apology, unable to decide if the interview was a comedy bit; at one point Seinfeld chided the audience, “Stop laughing, it’s not funny. (CNN Newsroom, 2006)”

Later, Richards called civil rights leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to apologize. He also appeared as a guest on Jackson’s syndicated radio show. This began a new trend in apologizing; the guilty party had to personally apologize to representatives of the groups who might be offended (Sharpton: Comedian’s apology not enough, 2006).

Case study 4: Various corporate apologies

Since corporations, as well as celebrities, are extremely vigilant when protecting their brand, it is no surprise that they find themselves in situations where they have to apologize. Most corporate apologies are sincere because they have directly affected the lives of individuals or the environment. However, many corporate apologies are non-apology apologies because the circumstances around which they have apologized usually involve trivial matters that would not normally offend the majority of the population.

One example of a typical corporate non-apology apology involves Delta Airlines. During the 2014 World Cup competition in Brazil, Delta Airlines posted a message on Twitter congratulating the United States soccer team for their defeat over Ghana. In their message, they posted a picture the Statue of Liberty with the number 2 super-imposed over it and another picture of a giraffe with the number 1 super-imposed over it. These graphics symbolized both the country and the score of the game. The problem with this is that giraffes are not to be found in Ghana (Mendoza, 2014).

Critics found the Twitter post to be “ignorant and offensive,” and some even considered the post racist. Delta Airlines felt they had to apologize the next day on their website saying the “tweet was both inaccurate and inappropriate” and that the company was “reviewing its procedures to ensure that future images and posts reflect both our values and our global focus. (Delta Air Lines Apologizes for Giraffe Gaffe, 2014)”

Case study 5: Celebrities who do not apologize

There are many times when celebrities say or do things which people find offensive, and the public usually waits for an apology a few days after. However, some celebrities refuse to apologize. What makes these cases interesting is the effect their refusal to apologize has on their career. Two recent examples of this scenario involve Charles Barkley, a former NBA basketball player; and Anthony Cumia, a popular radio presenter.

In the first scenario, Charles Barkley was commenting on his travels to different cities in the United States while he was an NBA player during a live television broadcast. During his narrative, he described women from San Antonio, Texas as being “big old women,” referring to their weight. When people from San Antonia demanded an apology, Barkley replied that he will apologize “when hell gonna (sic) freeze over. (Dater, 2014)”

There was no negative fallout from his response. In fact, he continues to be a sports commentator and presenter today. Many believe that Barkley did not have to apologize because this behavior is what is expected from him. The story eventually left the news cycle and is practically forgotten.

On the other hand, the situation is different for Anthony Cumia. Cumia was one half of the radio show Opie and Anthony, the same show that had the aforementioned “Apology Clock” experiment, which lasted from June 5 to July 4, 2014. During the show’s holiday break for Independence Day, Cumia was walking in Times Square, New York City late at night photographing the city lights. While he was taking one particular photograph, an African-American woman happened to walk in the frame of the picture. She heard the camera’s click and immediately began to accost Cumia, and she was joined by a group of African-American men.

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Later that evening while he was at home, he began posting the pictures and his comments on Twitter. Many of these comments were charged with emotion, and some of them were construed as being racist and violent towards women. The posts were noticed by a blogger, and the incident was reported in the mainstream press a couple of days later (Perex, 2014).

Cumia refused to apologize. In fact, he appeared on various news programs to explain and defend himself. The only thing he admitted was that he should have “cooled down” before posting his experience on Twitter. His refusal to apologize lead to his firing from SiriusXM radio four days later (MacNeal, 2014).

Americans’ response to and attitudes towards celebrity apologies

Social Justice Warriors

Currently, the trend in America is that celebrity apologies are increasing. This can be attributed to the importance of social media; not only Twitter and Face Book, but also public blogging sites that act as mainstream media, such as TMZ or The Huffington Post. These blogging sites have given rise to the “social justice warrior”.

A “social justice warrior” is a blogger who uses social media to “fight for the rights of the minority, under-privileged, and under-represented (Internet Observation Project).” They actively seek out celebrities, generally white males, and search for things that they say or do which are considered offensive to the people they want to protect and then write about the circumstance. Their blogs are read by a few and then linked in Twitter, where the article is read by many. More often than not, the mainstream press will report on the story if the blog post has been shared enough times.

There is much criticism towards the “social justice warrior.” Many believe that they are nothing more than gossip columnists who do not have the talent to write for established tabloids. Most “social justice warriors” earn money when people view their blog and/or click the advertisements posted on the site, so it is in their interest to write about controversial topics. Furthermore, “social justice warriors” do not have to answer questions about their sources, and usually hide themselves if there is an attack against them (Roosh, 2014).

Backlash against celebrity apologies

More recently, many people are starting to question why celebrities need to apologize, particularly for an unpopular opinion they may have voiced. An example of this backlash is when the actor Robin Williams committed suicide. After this tragedy, many celebrities voiced their opinions about suicide, and one celebrity who voiced unpopular opinions about suicide, the singer and author Henry Rollins, particularly received a lot of criticism (Joyce, 2014). This led to the question, “Do we now have to apologize for our opinions (Norton, 2014)?”

Finally, the celebrity apology has become embedded in humor. A recent example, and one that defines how ridiculous the celebrity apology has become, is the Twitter “#IAmSorry” started by actor Shia LaBeouf, which celebrities now have to use when posting their apologies. He has stated that the celebrity apology has become “an art form now,” and should be instructed in every drama class (Hare, 2014).


The celebrity apology is more than a humiliating moment for an individual or a corporation. The reason why many Americans are obsessed with celebrity apologies is because maybe it is a reflection of American sensitivities. When they see someone apologizing, it makes them feel better, maybe even more perfect. Also, it may be easier for people to look at others’ shortcomings and mistakes instead of looking at their own.

After completing my research, I noticed that their further investigation can be done. For example, it would be interesting to know if there has been a real increase in celebrity apologies recently, or if the publics’ backlash toward celebrity apologies has increased, which in turn makes it seem like there are more apologies. Also, a more quantitative analysis of celebrity apologies would reveal more about the phenomena. Finally, I wonder if the apology culture is only prevalent in the United States or is it common in other parts of the world.

Works Cited

(2006, November 21). Retrieved October 11, 2014, from CNN NEWSROOM: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0611/21/cnr.01.html

Ahrens, F. (2006, June 8). The Price for On-Air Indecency Goes Up. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/07/AR2006060700287.html

Apologetic Jackson says ‘costume reveal’ went awry. (2004, February 3). Retrieved October 2014, 11, from CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2004/US/02/02/superbowl.jackson/

Apology Clock. (2014, July 4). Retrieved October 11, 2014, from O&Apedia: https://oapedia.com/oa/Apology_Clock

Bill Clinton apologizing for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. (2008, August 2). Retrieved October 11, 2014, from You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPxwKS12TXE

Dater, J. (2014, May 11). Charles Barkley won’t apologize for his comments about San Antonio’s women. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from SB Nation: http://www.sbnation.com/lookit/2014/5/11/5708198/charles-barkley-wont-apologize-for-his-comments-about-san-antonios

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Farhi, P. (2006, November 21). ‘Seinfeld’ Comic Richards Apologizes for Racial Rant. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from The Washington Post : http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/21/AR2006112100242.html

Hare, B. (2014, June 9). Celebrity apologies: The good, bad and uncomfortable. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from Time: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/09/showbiz/celebrity-news-gossip/celebrity-apologies-best-worst-uncomfortable/

Hare, B. (2014, June 9). Celebrity apologies: The good, bad and uncomfortable. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/09/showbiz/celebrity-news-gossip/celebrity-apologies-best-worst-uncomfortable/

Joyce, C. (2014, August 25). Henry Rollins Is Still Really Sorry for His Comments About Robin Williams’ Suicide. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from Spin Magazine: http://www.spin.com/articles/henry-rollins-suicide-comments-la-weekly-column-robin-williams/

Lazare, A. (2005). On Apologies. Oxford University Press.

MacNeal, C. (2014, July 13). Anthony Cumia Won’t Apologize For Twitter Rant: ‘It Wasn’t Racist’. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from Talking Points Memo: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/anthony-cumia-no-apology-racist-rant

Mendoza, D. (2014, June 17). Delta’s giraffe gaffe. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/17/travel/delta-tweet-storify/

Norton, J. (2014, August 27). It’s Time for Celebrities To Apologize—For All Their Apologizing. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from Time: http://time.com/3196100/suicide-apology-culture/

Perex, C. (2014, July 4). Shock jock fired for racist Twitter rant. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from The New York Post: http://nypost.com/2014/07/04/shock-jock-anthony-cumia-fired-for-racist-twitter-rant/

Posner, R. A. (2009). An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton. Harvard University Press.

Roosh, V. (2014, October 6). What is a social justice warrior. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from Roosh: http://www.rooshv.com/what-is-a-social-justice-warrior-sjw

Sharpton: Comedian’s apology not enough. (2006, November 23). Retrieved October 2014, 2014, from CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/TV/11/22/sharpton.richard/index.html

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