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One sorry column

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Let me apologize in advance for this column. In fact, let me apologize for every column I've written over these past 10 years that may have irked, irritated or wasted your valuable time. I'm sorry. Truly sorry. And I want you to know that I take full responsibility. Blame me. Not my editor. Not the copy desk. Just moi.

Feel better? You should. Because according to the Zeitgeist, we're all about saying I'm sorry right now. In recent weeks, the media has dissected, tracked and rated apologies issued by everyone from Tiger Woods to Harry Reid to Mark McGwire to Jerry Levin. The Wall Street Journal has reported that people are using the Internet to track down old friends to deliver decades-late apologies for offenses ranging from putting gum in a schoolmate's hair to telling a fifth-grade crush to drop dead. And then there are those mea culpas that are -- or aren't -- spewing forth from Wall Street. The media has been tracking those, too, and it's not happy. " 'Sorry' still seems to be the hardest word on Wall Street," trilled a headline on a Dana Milbank Washington Post column on Jan. 14.

But it's The New York Times that seems to be spilling the most ink on the apology beat, Wall Street division. The paper a few weeks ago wrested a "my bad" of sorts from Sandy Weill, who said he had made some mistakes at Citigroup Inc., but then proceeded to throw his successor, Chuck Prince, under the bus. A week later, the paper's editorial page chimed in with a piece headlined "Are They Really?" which posited that the problem isn't that no one on Wall Street is apologizing for their sins; it's that they are. But their "contrition thing" isn't convincing because it doesn't come with accountability: "a resignation or a decision to forswear bonuses and certainly a pledge to stop trying to block desperately needed financial reforms."

The editorial ends by likening bankers' noncontrition to Marie Antoinette's infamous "Let them eat cake" to her hungry French subjects. Sneers the Times, "In hindsight, an apology might have been a better idea."

Never mind that most historians don't buy that Antoinette actually said those words. (To be fair, the Times does refer to the story as "legend.") The paper just wants to make its point that Wall Street doesn't get it, "it" being that people are angry.

A few days later, the paper's news staff decided to more closely examine the contrition issue, and on Jan. 13 -- the day Phil Angelides' Pecora-like crisis hearings began in Congress -- the apology beat made it to the front page. In a story headlined "For Bankers, Saying 'Sorry' Has Its Perils," no less than four Times reporters (four!) tried to get to the bottom of why bankers and other corporate bigwigs weren't sufficiently apologizing for their crisis roles.

After all, the story noted, ex-Time Warner Inc. CEO Levin managed to say he was sorry for buying AOL, even if it took a decade. But Wall Street was not taking Levin up on his plea to take personal responsibility. And the Times wanted to know why.

The unsurprising answer turned out to be that there are the legal liability issues involved in apologizing for poor performance. But the Times also offered this: that embracing the mea culpa isn't the American way. It backed up this odd finding with a quote from Michael Useem, a professor of management at the Wharton School, who told the paper, "American culture does not put a premium on apology."

Really? With all due respect, professor, have you ever watched "Oprah"? Or stumbled upon apologyindex.com, which tracks "all apologies, all the time"?

Indeed, in the wake of the Times' story, the media's coverage of the Angelides hearings became a sorry circus. Forget trying to piece together complicated factors that led to one of the greatest financial implosions ever; the media was fixated on getting apologies. "Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein still doesn't get it," declared Milbank's Washington Post column.

The Times happily reported that ABC's Jonathan Karl cornered Jamie Dimon on his way out of the hearing to ask him, "Does Wall Street get it?" Even President Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, got in on the act, telling the press that the White House wants an apology from bank executives.

It still hasn't gotten it, of course. Maybe the White House should get in line to apologize, too.

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Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.