In recent weeks, a handful of seemingly unrelated events -- the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, an Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian flotilla, umpire Jim Joyce's blown call that cost Detroit Tiger's pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game and reporter Helen Thomas's abrupt retirement from the White House press corps over her controversial remarks on Israel-Palestine -- offer valuable lessons about taking responsibility for one's actions.
Call it an index of accountability.
Despite conflicting reports over the amount of oil that is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, there is no doubt this is the worst oil spill in U.S. history. To date, BP's efforts to control the leak have failed. And while the extent of the environmental damage is difficult to assess at this time, it is clear that the Gulf's ecosystem is in crisis -- and likely will be so for years to come.
"As ProPublica's reporting on BP reveals, this is not the first time that the oil giant has neglected environmental and worker safety regulations."
As for people who live in and around the Gulf, the economic impact of the spill, and the subsequent clean up efforts, is equally devastating. Well-established regional industries, such as commercial fishing and tourism, are reeling from the disaster. Equally important, for a great many communities along the Gulf, a whole way of life is under siege and may never recover.
Local, state and federal officials promise to hold BP accountable for the spill and its immediate and long-term consequences. But as ProPublica's reporting on BP reveals, this is not the first time that the oil giant has neglected environmental and worker safety regulations.
BP's flagrant disregard for federal rules, as well as internal investigations that revealed serious violations of the company's own safety policies, suggests that BP's corporate culture is wholly irresponsible.
Add to this the hubris of BP officials who deny the existence of underwater plumes of oil -- despite independent and government reports to the contrary -- and who otherwise refuse to cooperate with environmental scientists and you get a perfect recipe for unprecedented environmental disaster and unparalleled corporate malfeasance.
Significantly, not a single BP executive has been fired or asked to resign in the wake of the oil spill and the ensuing public outrage. To be blunt, there's scarcely a hint of accountability in BP's response to the disaster.
"The Obama administration has been spinning the story to deflect criticism of the president's energy policy and otherwise avoid responsibility for the ensuing environmental calamity."
None of this is to suggest that the federal government is any less responsible for the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. Much to the (repeated) consternation of his supporters, President Obama announced his decision to approve new offshore drilling in March of this year.
Within a matter of weeks, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Ever since, the Obama administration has been spinning the story to deflect criticism of the president's energy policy and otherwise avoid responsibility for the ensuing environmental calamity.
As his poll numbers plummet, Obama has ratcheted up the rhetoric denouncing BP executives for their handling of the spill. Asked what he made of BP CEO Tony Hayward's callous remark about "wanting his life back" Obama told NBC's Matt Lauer, "He wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements."
The rub here is that Obama, like so many of his predecessors, is the one who works for BP -- and Exxon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATT, Time Warner, Citibank, Goldman Sachs and other corporations that have a stranglehold on our political system.
In a different register, the state of Israel likewise has undue influence over U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Case in point: the tepid "official response" to the deadly Israeli raid on a humanitarian flotilla bound for the Gaza strip.
"The U.S. government -- along with the American press corps -- has bought Israel's specious claim that the raid was a defensive measure."
Whereas the international community condemned Israel's May 31 assault that claimed the lives of nine activists, the United States refused to support a Security Council statement critical of Israel's military action.
Instead, the U.S. government -- along with the American press corps -- has bought Israel's specious claim that the raid was a defensive measure. The Obama administration has yet to issue an outright condemnation of the flotilla assault.
More recently, Israel has rejected calls from around the world for an independent, multinational investigation into the flotilla raid. In the meantime, the three-year blockade continues, despite charges by human rights groups that Israel is imposing collective punishment on the people of Gaza.
With U.S. backing, then, Israel uses military force with impunity. In doing so, Israel is charting a course that parallels the worst aspects of American neo-imperialism.
Although the United States and Israel refuse to be held accountable for policies and practices that make a mockery of international law and deny people basic human rights, it is heartening to know that there are people in public life who acknowledge mistakes and attempt to make amends for their words and deeds.
"The incident reveals the value and palliative effects of accountability -- an increasingly rare commodity in public life."
Take the example of Jim Joyce, the first-base umpire whose blown call spoiled Armando Galarraga's June 2 bid for a perfect game. Upon realizing his error, Joyce had enough respect for himself, for Galarraga, and for the game of baseball, to admit his mistake -- and to own it.
Following the game, a remorseful Joyce appeared at a press conference to express his regret and apologize to Galarraga for missing the call. Joyce didn't offer any excuses. He didn't try to deflect the criticism. He simply took responsibility for a regrettable error: "I did not get the call correct. I kicked the sh*t out of it."
For his part, Galarraga was a good sport about the entire episode. The next day, Galarraga presented Joyce, who was working behind the plate, with the lineup card. The two men shook hands and then, a tearful Joyce patted Galarraga on the shoulder in an admirable display of good sportsmanship and mutual respect.
The incident reveals the value and palliative effects of accountability -- an increasingly rare commodity in public life. Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson summed it up well when he wrote: "Armando Galarraga is an artist. But my fondest hope for my children is that they grow up to be like Jim Joyce."
As for me, my fondest hope is that up and coming reporters look past the unfortunate circumstances that proved to be the undoing of long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas and emulate her passion, intelligence and journalistic integrity.
Thomas, often referred to as the dean of the White House press corps, resigned early last week in the wake of a firestorm of criticism surrounding remarks she made about Israel-Palestine.
"Thomas's comments were troubling as they were controversial. Nevertheless, the reaction within the White House press corps and official Washington was self-serving and decidedly overblown."
Responding to a question about Israel, Thomas said, "Tell them to get the get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people [the Palestinians] are occupied and it's their land." Thomas continued, "They should go home, to Poland, Germany and America".
Posted on YouTube, the video quickly went viral and set off a controversy that ultimately cost Thomas her job and tarnished her reputation.
To be sure, Thomas's comments were troubling as they were controversial. Nevertheless, the reaction within the White House press corps and official Washington was self-serving and decidedly overblown.
Don't get me wrong; I view public apologies with a great deal of skepticism. Still, given Helen Thomas's history and reputation for vigorous, watchdog journalism, it is something of a tragedy that her statement of regret did little to stem the criticism and condemnation directed at her.
Indeed, as a number of commentators have noted, the outrage directed at Helen Thomas within official Washington and among the White House press corps stands in sharp contrast to the silence among news workers for their complicity in allowing politicians, military planners and corporate executives from avoiding any measure of accountability.
For instance, Grit-TV's Laura Flanders observed, "The White House Correspondents Association showed more fury in 24 hours towards Thomas than they've ever shown towards the journalists who, unlike Thomas, softballed Bush for eight straight years and passed on government lies that led us into the Iraq invasion."
Whatever we might make of Helen Thomas's remarks, one thing is clear: she has taken responsibility for her words. Would that this, along with her 50 years of keeping U.S. presidents accountable to the American people, becomes part of her legacy.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University and can be reached at email@example.com. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.