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Tales of Batman and G.I. Joe

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By Sherry Robinson

Dr. Hook sings this memorable ditty by Shel Silverstein:

“Rolling Stone

Wanna see my picture on the cover.

Rolling Stone

Wanna buy five copies for my mother.”

Two guys who didn’t buy five copies for their mothers are Gen. Stanley McChrystal and our very own Val Kilmer. Batman and G.I. Joe didn’t have a lot in common until lately, when the yogurt hit the fan over their published words in Rolling Stone magazine.

McChrystal, a picture of discipline, got himself canned for some remarkably undisciplined comments in a magazine known for probing journalism, irreverence and gritty language. It’s also appropriate that Duncan Boothby, McChrystal’s press aide, stepped down. Somebody in Boothby’s position normally briefs the brass for these interviews to prevent just this sort of loose talk. He either dropped the ball or McChrystal wasn’t listening.

Kilmer, on the other hand, is guilty of casual remarks in 2003 about living in “the homicide capital of the Southwest” where “80 percent of the people in my county are drunk.” There were also some convoluted remarks about veterans in a 2005 Esquire interview.

These are two smart, presumably media-savvy people. How does this stuff happen? Two words: Unguarded moments.

It’s the journalist’s job to draw them out – to get beyond yes and no answers and on to beliefs, opinions, motivation. This often takes the form of a conversation, and as the conversation progresses, interviewees may focus on this two-way exchange and not on how a response will look in print.

They may also share too much. Think Jimmy Carter lusting in his heart. I’ve been amazed over the years at what people will tell me in a face-to-face interview. Maybe because we don’t listen well to each other, a good listener can be seductive.

In Kilmer’s case, he apparently made a few parting remarks to a reporter getting in her car for the drive back. He probably assumed the interview was over. It wasn’t.

Here’s a tip to public figures: Always assume the microphone is on. And the interview isn’t finished until you can see the reporter’s tail lights.

Kilmer’s remarks were old news until the actor needed San Miguel County’s permission to open a bed and breakfast. To his credit, he appeared before the commission and apologized, talking about his roots in New Mexico, his love of the state, and his chagrin at how his words were twisted.   

“I sincerely apologize to the residents of San Miguel County, my neighbors, our nation’s veterans and the residents of the state of New Mexico for the comments made in Rolling Stone and Esquire magazine. I hope that you can recognize my deep regret for the impact my comments have had on you, my neighbors, as well as our state.”

What happened next is instructive. County Attorney Jesus Lopez said graciously, “Let’s put this to bed and live as good neighbors.” Some locals, however, were primed for a witch burning. One man hollered that Kilmer should be arrested under the 1917 Espionage Act. Chief critic Adran Tapia intends to stay mad. I guess in his life he’s never said anything stupid that he’d like to take back.

This story ran all over the country. Who do you think looked worse – the contrite Kilmer, telling the world, “I love it here,” or the sulking locals?  

I’ve taken to studying public apologies, and this one is better than most. Kilmer acknowledges the harm done, offers his heartfelt apology, emphasizes his loyalty to the county and state and asks to look to the future. The only missing piece is how he will make amends. The community should suggest some worthy project and allow the actor to donate money or time.

And then they should all move on. Please.

© New Mexico News Services 2010