Congloms need a one-size-fits-all apology

CONSERVATIVES WANT Rosie O’Donnell fired for promoting 9/11 conspiracy theories. Liberals want Ann Coulter’s column dropped. Gays wanted Isaiah Washington booted off “Grey’s Anatomy” for slurs. African-Americans want Don Imus gone for being the idiot he’s always been on the air.

Could there be one standard corporate apology, to serve them all?

The intemperate, ill-advised, just plain stupid remarks of the rich and famous have become a regular sideshow in our celebrity-driven culture — another excuse to peddle light news for those who don’t trust the public to swallow the hard stuff. The irony, or perhaps twisted sense of justice, is that those who feed this environment — say, right-wing radio hosts that ridicule Sean Penn for attacking the Bush administration — often wind up in the same predicament, creating their own kind of circular firing squad.

Bill O’Reilly, for example, has been all over Imus and O’Donnell — questioning ABC’s “The View” for providing the latter a platform — even though the Fox News host gets apoplectic every time someone criticizes one of his tirades. Every minute devoted to Michael Richards, Mel Gibson or NBA star Tim Hardaway, meanwhile, is another spent avoiding Iraq war funding or the Justice Dept., mollifying consultants who see showbiz as a colorful garnish to a dreary news blotter.

IT’S NO ACCIDENT the apologies tend to sound “forced” and insincere, as PBS correspondent Gwen Ifill wrote in the New York Times. They often are — reflecting a “Just make this ‘crisis’ go away” mentality.

Keeping the wheels of profit turning, however, requires greasing them with chagrin and remorse — which is where that one-size-fits-all apology comes into play.

“We, [insert corporation here], apologize to anyone offended by [celebrity name]’s comments, and we disavow the opinions expressed.

“The sad truth is that we need to be provocative to get noticed in a crowded marketplace, and a segment of the audience enjoys watching/listening to/downloading [celebrity name]. We completely understand anyone who objects and chooses to boycott this property, but we feel [celebrity name]’s apology, agreement to enter counseling and suspension [for one week/for two weeks/until sweeps begin] is appropriate punishment, however ill-informed/despicable these remarks are.

“Put simply, we are strictly in it for the money and do not, in any way, endorse said views.” Don’t officially say this part, but then privately tell reporters, “Our hope is this will calm the waters until somebody else says something dumb, thus taking the spotlight off us.”

Hey, it’s worth a try. Honesty, for once, might really be the best policy.

AS FURTHER PROOF that covering television isn’t as easy as it appears, consider New York Times public editor Byron Calame’s outrage Sunday upon discovering that Nielsen ratings cannot be taken as gospel.

“At a minimum, the Times should start alerting readers that Nielsen doesn’t provide the margin of error for its data and begin describing the ratings as ‘estimates,'” Mr. Calame stated. “The paper should put the disclaimer in each article and each chart where Nielsen television audience data is used.”

Yes, and while they’re at it, every story about Christmas should remind readers that Santa Claus does not exist but was created as part of an elaborate marketing campaign, designed by greedy retailers to fool children and bilk parents out of money.

It’s hard to believe the revelation that Nielsen tallies are based on a small sample of the TV-owning public comes as a major shock to anybody. NBC, in fact, has for years accompanied its rating press releases with the disclaimer that rankings are predicated on “in-home viewing estimates,” eliminating drunks in bars, hotel patrons and, until this season, college dorm residents.

The demand for information means small-print qualifiers receive scant attention, from ratings to opinion polls. People curious regarding how many people watched “The Sopranos” Sunday (an estimated 7.7 million, by the way) don’t want to be bogged down in the methodology responsible for that figure.

Not that the Times’ inhouse watchdog acknowledged these practical realities. “Times readers were left to believe the rankings really meant something,” Calame huffed.

Frankly, I’d say about 90% of Times readers knew better already or couldn’t give a damn — with a plus-or-minus 10% margin for error.

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