More and more, public figures seem to be unable to extricate themselves from scandal gracefully, so much so that often the apology gets them in more trouble than the original misbehavior. Think about Bill Clinton parsing words about what “is” means, Mark Sanford permanently making “hiking the Appalachian Trail” into a joke, or anything relating to Anthony Weiner. In this day and age, it’s impossible to say or do anything without some sort of permanent online recording of it, and we are all human and likely to make mistakes, so it’s high time celebrities and politicians learn how to say “I’m sorry” without digging themselves an even deeper hole.
And the first lesson should be, say you’re sorry, you did something wrong, and then stop – don’t try to defend your actions, don’t explain it’s because your spouse didn’t understand you or your parents raised you that way. (This is a corollary of the advice my mother gave me when I became an instant step-parent of an 8-year-old through my first marriage. Mom said that when a kid asks a question, only answer the question, don’t volunteer additional details until asked. So if a toddler says, “Where did I come from?” perhaps she only wants to know the city in which she was born, not how she was actually conceived. My first solo outing with my new stepdaughter was the week after we’d all seen the movie Look Who’s Talking, and sure enough she piped up, “You know those things swimming around in the very beginning of the movie? What were they?” Recollecting Mom’s words of wisdom, I answered, “Those are called sperm,” and held my breath. Nope, she was satisfied, she just wanted to know the word. Whew.)
Last week Paula Deen could’ve used my mother’s advice – the celebrity chef faced a growing storm over remarks she’d made in a recent deposition, acknowledging she’d used a racially offensive term, as well as rhapsodizing over the charms of a “plantation wedding” with polite dark-skinned waiters in nice uniforms (and commenting about how many jokes there also were about Jews, gays, and rednecks, thereby managing to offend everyone else). Ms. Deen rushed out a series of rather odd videos, in which she apologized, but then continued to explain that she grew up in the South, that’s just how they all talk, she wasn’t a racist, lots of people use the ‘n’ word all the time, and some of her best friends, etc. On top of her appearances strangely resembling hostage videos, she compounded the damage by attempting to explain herself, then no-showing a much-hyped Today Show appearance (and Matt Lauer didn’t hesitate to tell his audience what happened). As the controversy continued to build (and more former employees came forward with claims of discrimination and hostile work environment), Food Network abruptly announced they were not renewing her contract.
People rushed to comment, with strong feelings on both sides. Her die-hard fans swore never to watch Food Network again and claimed that she was being punished for using language everyone else used, while plenty of older southern ladies chimed in that they’d NEVER used the word in question and resented Deen for claiming that everyone in her generation did. Pretty soon the online comments veered off into condemning rap music, accusing Deen of hypocrisy for hiding her own diabetes until she got a lucrative pharmaceutical contract, and claiming that people who didn’t cook with butter were un-American. Meanwhile it’s not like Deen is going to be impoverished, between her cookbooks, her restaurants, and various product lines – she’s carved out a unique niche for herself as the former inventor of a bacon-cheeseburger with a donut bun, who now offers slightly more healthy variations on down-home southern fare, and there are multiple websites devoted to her “Deenisms” (such as “The more cheese, the better,” “I’m not your doctor, I’m your cook!” and “If y’all will excuse me, I’m gonna make love to this here potato”).
I don’t know if a sparser apology would have changed Food Network’s decision, but Deen didn’t do herself any favors by her awkward explanations, including insisting that she just adored all her African-American employees (one of whom she jokingly accused of blending in with a blackboard because he was so dark), and claiming that most plantation owners treated their slaves like valued members of the family. I do hope she recovers from this debacle – partly because she’s just too darned entertaining to disappear (is there anyone else you can imagine teaching us how to make deep-fried stuffing-on-a-stick?), and partly because I think she sincerely regrets her mistake. (And also because thanks to her, news outlets didn’t have room to revel in details about the Kim Kardashian/Kanye West baby, other than the fact that they have probably topped Gwyneth Paltrow and Frank Zappa in the you-did-WHAT-to-your-kid? baby naming insanity contest. The baby’s name is North, by the way; seems way better than Apple or Moon Unit at first, but just think about it for a bit.)
Anyway, it’s been a very entertaining few days, so here’s a song commemorating the whole story: