Diplomacy Tips From the Fourth Estate

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 5 2001 6:56 PM

Diplomacy Tips From the Fourth Estate

The United States and China are at an impasse. The Chinese want us to say we're sorry that we had a surveillance plane snooping on them from what appears to have been international air space and that we're sorry our plane collided with one of theirs, killing a Chinese pilot, even though there's some evidence that the collision was actually the Chinese pilot's fault. We don't want to say we're sorry, not only because the U.S. doesn't appear to be at fault but also because it might set a bad precedent for future incidents. What's called for is some kind of pseudoapology--something that will get the Chinese to cool down but that won't actually give ground. President Bush tried his hand at this today:

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I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret one of their airplanes was lost. And our prayers go out to the pilot, his family. Our prayers are also with our own servicemen and women, and they need to come home. Our message to the Chinese is, we should not let this incident destabilize relations.

Not very good, is it? It occurs to Chatterbox that perhaps Bush and his staff haven't had to do this sort of thing much in the past. That got Chatterbox thinking about the group of people that probably has the most experience issuing pseudoapologies to aggrieved-but-not-wronged parties to whom it cannot (or prefers not to) say, simply, "Piss off!" That group is, of course, journalists. Joe Blow calls to say that something you wrote or edited is deeply offensive. Occasionally Joe Blow is right, and it's appropriate to issue an apology or correction. More often, though, Joe Blow is just mad. You don't want him to sue you. What do you say? Most of the time, Chatterbox finds himself saying (often over and over again), "I'm sorry you feel that way." It sounds sympathetic; it's sincere (I am sorry Joe feels that way, or at least sorry that he called me to tell me he feels that way); it's dignified; and it does nothing to undermine my work product. (As Chatterbox's friend Bill Barol points out in his daily Weblog, "I'm sorry you feel that way" has long been a handy tool for communicating with a dumped boyfriend or girlfriend.)

Chatterbox invited fellow members of the Fourth Estate to share some of their own techniques for calming irate people to whom no apology is due. In reading what follows, please remember that these comments don't necessarily constitute advice on how Bush should deal with the U.S.-Chinese impasse. Indeed, in many cases, they don't appear relevant to that conflict at all. Nonetheless, they are all quite entertaining, and some of them might actually help the White House puzzle out what to tell the Chinese.

Joe Conason, New York Observer columnist:

"My editors wrote the headline/pull quote/photo caption."
"The editors/lawyers took that sentence out."
"The editors/lawyers put that sentence in."
"My notes don't reflect what you're telling me you said."
"I wish you had called back before my deadline."
"Please send a letter to the editor."

Lloyd Grove, "Reliable Source" columnist, Washington Post:

1) "I hear ya."
2) "I certainly had no intention of giving you any heartburn, and I'm sorry you're feeling put out."
3) "I'll make it up to you."
4) "Oh piss off!"

Walter Isaacson, editorial director, Time Inc.:

I tend to ask irate callers or writers to tell me all the facts as they see them and let them vent their emotions. Then I tell them I understand fully what they are saying and repeat back to them what I understand them to be saying. If there is a disagreement over some facts, I tell them our view of the facts. As happened in the original U.S.-China "Shanghai Accords," it sometimes helps if both sides lay out the situation as they see it and, where they disagree, state that they are fully aware of the other side's position.

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