When Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary wished in an op-ed last month for a new Hurricane Katrina to wipe the corruption slate clean in Chicago, all hell rightfully broke lose. She was responding to comments shared by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu during a recent media tour framing the post-Katrina Big Easy as a less corrupt, more fiscally responsible city and as many have opined in the past few weeks, she didn’t choose her words with much care.
There’s nothing new to add to the debate about the woeful fitness of her choice of metaphor. But if anything, the equally woeful fitness of her attempt to dig herself out of the moral hole of her comments proves the reason for the most important piece of crisis-control advice anyone can ever give: apologize early, and often, and mean it.
The original title, “In Chicago, wishing for a Hurricane Katrina,” was quickly changed to “Chicago, New Orleans, and Rebirth,” but not before Huffington Post cached the original, in which McQueary wishes for “a real storm.” That became a wish for a “figurative storm” in the sanitized version, but in both versions she claimed to be able to relate to “the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.”
Of course, ten years ago last month Katrina also killed more than 1,800 people, destroyed entire neighborhoods, eliminated livelihoods, and forever changed The Big Easy and its nationally significant cultural integrity. Observers from Chicago, New Orleans, and eventually from across the country and around the world, took to the Internet to call for McQueary’s head. (See: Times-Picayune; Washington Post; Al Jazeera America; The Independent.)
Locally, Gapers Block called McQueary’s column racist, while the Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner stoked controversy further by claiming that McQueary deserved better from her readers—twice. The Chicago Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) demanded McQueary’s suspension and a public apology from Tribune Editorial Page editor Bruce Dold. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the column “morally reprehensible.”
But the only public response from McQueary or her masthead was a dismissive tweet on her personal Twitter account (“If you read the piece, it’s about finances and government. I would never diminish the tragedy of thousands of lives lost”), and a long-winded follow-up column in which she managed to criticize everyone hurt by her words (“I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction”), but never actually gets around to apologizing for them.
To my mind, an op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business from Huffington Post and Beachwood Reporter contributor Matt Farmer entitled “Here’s the apology Kristen McQueary should have written” got far closer to the point than McQueary chose to. Farmer’s suggested apology has an alternate-universe McQueary actually acknowledging the level of the pain her words caused, owning her lack of judgment and poor choice of metaphor, apologizing for both, and asking for forgiveness.
Had she done that—immediately or at all—she would have engendered goodwill and helped to halt what, in the vacuum of any real message of contrition, quickly became a global PR nightmare for her world-famous newspaper. Instead, she choose to lecture to her readers and her critics about how they should have differently interpreted her meaning. It’s the same position staked by the Reader’s Miner, who wrote in his follow-up column:
”The level of meaning that concerns me is the one she thought she was writing at. She’s accountable for what she says at that level too, and she deserves readers who meet her there.”
Except she doesn’t. No journalist does. In fact, McQueary is and should be held accountable for how she came across, period. Her job as a journalist is to come across clearly so that her readers get her meaning and, as a result, understand the news that she’s trying to communicate. If she has to explain at length what she meant, then she was sloppy in her writing in the first place.
It’s not the job of her readers to meet her halfway and magically assume what she meant. Neither she nor any other journalist “deserves” their readers, much less deserves to receive that kind of credit from them. There aren’t any points for “meaning well” in journalism. All you have are your words, and it’s your job to use them wisely at all times. (That should be especially true for a Chicago Tribune editorial board member, shouldn’t it?)
And when you screw up, own it. Because beyond causing unnecessary pain and discord, defending bad journalism cheapens journalism. And that’s a sorry line to cross for all the world to see.