Harvey Weinstein Shows Us When Apologizing Makes Things Worse

The worlds of entertainment, politics and news media are still buzzing four days after The New York Times wrote about allegations that Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed a number of women over nearly three decades. People are talking about appalling behavior, attempts to keep things quiet through settlements, the courage of those who came forward to confront a powerful figure, and the silence of those who remain on the sidelines.

Do not expect this storm to pass soon. More voices will likely keep the whirlwind spinning. But this will also continue to get air and ink for some time because his botched apology became its own news story.

Of course, he thought he was doing the right thing. “I mean every word of that apology,” Mr. Weinstein told TheWrap. But he is also elevating the story by taking his case from the court of public opinion to a court of law. “The reason I am suing the New York Times is they didn’t give me enough time to respond,” he said. One of his lawyers added, the Times story was “saturated with false and defamatory statements,” which relied on “mostly hearsay and a faulty report.”

So, immediately, his own apology is undermined. He says he’s sorry but is taking legal action because he claims the reporting was false and defamatory. And, remember, this has been going on for years. Blaming a time crunch for a hastily written apology seems ludicrous.

USA TODAY called it the worst apology ever. While quite awful — and we’ll dig deeper — it is not. I’ve written about some other real doozies: Paula Deen (the N-word), Mel Gibson (misogyny, anti-Semitism), Gruenenthal CEO Harald Stock (thalidomide) and Rush Limbaugh (Sandra Fluke) are but a few examples.

The Daily Beast took the Weinstein apology apart line by line and gave it a failing grade. I use an apology model — the 6 As — to provide some additional perspectives and an actual score:

Acknowledging something has happened. It’s notable that he does not describe the transgressions. The references are to “behavior” and “interactions.” It takes six lines to get to something resembling an acknowledgement. There’s an evasive feel to what should be a direct statement. Score: 6/10

Authentic expression of regret. “I cannot be more remorseful about the people I hurt…,” he said. And, he asks his victims to “trust me” when there is no reason to do so right now. He goes on to talk about his own “journey” to conquer his “demons.” While next steps are important (see below), this needs to be about those he hurt. There’s little evidence of understanding or compassion. Score: 5/10

Appropriate tone and language. The letter opens with a dreadful, illegitimate attempt to explain abuse as a learned behavior from the 1960s and 70s. “I so respect all women…” couldn’t ring any more hollow. Add in references to Jay-Z, the NRA, and organizing scholarships at USC and we’re left scratching our heads. Score: 5/10

Acceptable venue. The apology letter was sent to the Times in response to the about-to-be-published story. It was forced and it shows. An open letter is fine but it should be backed up by personal, private outreach. Score: 7/10

Acting in the right timeframe. Again, the timing was out of his hands because of the impending Times story. “I’ve been trying to do this for 10 years and this is a wake-up call,” he said. The apology is, in fact, decades late. Score: 6/10

Announcing next steps. He “brought on therapists” and asked one of his attorneys to “tutor” him. This is vague boilerplate. Mr. Weinstein concludes that he’s going to “channel” his “anger” in ways that “won’t disappoint” his mother. Thus, the letter ends about as off-topic as it began. Score: 5/10

The 6 As rubric weights the elements differently. So, my overall score — and you may certainly have a different evaluation — works out to 55/100. An “F.”

Apologies have real consequences. Mr. Weinstein’s alleged actions have harmed women, broken trust and friendships, triggered termination from his company, and provided a healthy dose of schadenfreude to his adversaries.

Apologies can hurt you and others when they’re poorly conceived and executed. Sadly, in this case, what should be a step in healing has only made the wound deeper.