Paper’s Second Statement Does Much Better Job of Addressing Issues and Quieting the Storm
4/29/19 – – A political cartoon published in the international edition of The New York Times on Thursday, April 25, caused quite a stir. Readers charged antisemitism, expressing outrage over an illustration of President Trump wearing a yarmulke being led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is depicted as a guide dog wearing a Star of David on his collar.
The heated response got even hotter when the Times two days later issued this editor’s note:
A political cartoon in the international print edition of The New York Times on Thursday included anti-Semitic tropes, depicting the prime minister of Israel as a guide dog with a Star of David collar leading the president of the United States, shown wearing a skullcap. The image was offensive, and it was an error of judgment to publish it. It was provided to The New York Times News Service and Syndicate, which has since deleted it.
Critics found the statement unsatisfying at best, resulting in reactions like this tweet by The American Jewish Committee:
Apology not accepted. How many @nytimes editors looked at a cartoon that would not have looked out of place on a white supremacist website and thought it met the paper’s editorial standards? What does this say about your processes or your decision makers? How are you fixing it?
By April 28 – three days after the cartoon ran – Times editors recognized the inadequacy of the paper’s initial response. Contrast the sterility of the “editor’s note” above with the following mea culpa issued on Sunday by the Opinion-page editors:
We are deeply sorry for the publication of an anti-Semitic political cartoon last Thursday in the print edition of The New York Times that circulates outside the United States, and we are committed to making sure nothing like this happens again. Such imagery is always dangerous, and at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, it’s all the more unacceptable. We have investigated how this happened and learned that, because of a faulty process, a single editor working without adequate oversight downloaded the syndicated carton and made the decision to include it on the Opinion page. The matter remains under review and we are evaluating our internal processes and training. We anticipate significant changes.
Wow! What a difference.
In Chapter 12 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“The Five Rs of Crisis Response”) we discuss five elements of effective crisis response statements: Regret, Reform, Restitution, Reaffirmation and Recovery. The decision by the Times not to include any expression of regret or discussion of needed reform in its initial response made a bad situation much worse. People offended by the cartoon were not convinced that the Times was sorry for its mistake, aware of what was objectionable, or committed to determining what went wrong and stopping such material from being published in the future.
Sunday’s follow-up statement, while it will not silence all related criticism of The New York Times, did a much better job of addressing these issues. And the paper published a very critical piece on Sunday by opinion columnist Bret Stephens calling for “serious reflection as to how it came to publish this cartoon – and how its publication came, to many longtime readers, as a shock but not a surprise.”
The lessons here for crisis communicators are clear: If you are in the wrong, acknowledge that with a sincere apology or expression of regret. Make it clear that you understand what went wrong and why people are upset. Assure your audiences that you are initiating reforms to make sure the same mistakes won’t keep happening.
The New York Times heightened readers’ anger with its first response. Audiences are always skeptical of “do-overs.” But the paper’s second statement gets it much closer to quieting this reputational storm.
UPDATE: 5/1/19 – – The Editorial Board of The New York Times published an editorial further condemning the offensive cartoon described above under the headline: “A Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism: By publishing a bigoted cartoon, The Times ignored the lessons of history, including its own.”
UPDATE: 6/11/19 – – The New York Times announced that it “would no longer publish daily political cartoons in its international edition.”