Monday, October 19, 2015

Rhetoric: Accountability and “I Take Responsibility”

In general, people are expected to be answerable for their behavior, and the same applies in politics. We often hear that someone is expected to be accountable for what they’ve done, or that someone is taking responsibility for something.

But what does this mean?

For instance, if a person says, “I take responsibility” for something that happened, what changes? Does it mean:
  • They are going to quit their job, or be fired?
  • They are going to fire someone else?
  • They are going to plead guilty to a crime, pay a fine or go to jail?
  • They are going to fix the problem, or even lead the effort to do so?
  • They are going to sacrifice something of value in order to fix the problem?

In general, we have to ask: what is happening now that you have taken responsibility that wasn't happening beforehand? What difference is being brought about by your taking responsibility?

If there isn’t a good answer to this question, then “taking responsibility” may be no more than an explanation and an article of empty rhetoric.

The purpose of releasing the partial transcript of the shooter's interaction with 911 operators was to provide transparency, while remaining sensitive to the interests of the surviving victims, their families, and the integrity of the ongoing investigation. We also did not want to provide the killer or terrorist organizations with a publicity platform for hateful propaganda. Unfortunately, the unreleased portions of the transcript that named the terrorist organizations and leaders have caused an unnecessary distraction from the hard work that the FBI and our law enforcement partners have been doing to investigate this heinous crime. As much of this information had been previously reported, we have re-issued the complete transcript to include these references in order to provide the highest level of transparency possible under the circumstances.
-- Joint statement, June 20, 2016, from the Justice Department and the FBI regarding the transcript related to the Orlando terror attack.

Comment: This is "distractions" rhetoric. Notice, the Justice Department and FBI are changing their behavior – they are releasing an unedited transcript, in contrast to the edited one they previously released – but they are not admitting that their previous behavior was in error. They are not taking accountability for any mistake.

As Executive Producer of “Under the Gun,” a documentary film that explores the epidemic of gun violence, I take responsibility for a decision that misrepresented an exchange I had with members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). My question to the VCDL regarding the ability of convicted felons and those on the terror watch list to legally obtain a gun, was followed by an extended pause, making the participants appear to be speechless. When I screened an early version of the film with the director, Stephanie Soechtig, I questioned her and the editor about the pause and was told that a "beat" was added for, as she described it, “dramatic effect," to give the audience a moment to consider the question. When VCDL members recently pointed out that they had in fact immediately answered this question, I went back and reviewed it and agree that those eight seconds do not accurately represent their response. VCDL members have a right for their answers to be shared and so we have posted a transcript of their responses here. I regret that those eight seconds were misleading and that I did not raise my initial concerns more vigorously.
-- News anchor Katie Couric, May 31, 2016.

Comment: This is “I take responsibility” rhetoric, in which Couric seems to confess to going along with someone else’s editing decision. Is this the same as admitting that she is the cause of the mistake? What is different, or what will change, now that Couric has taken responsibility for what happened?

GUTHRIE: Some of your Democratic allies, Democratic leaders have said point blank that Bernie Sanders – a democratic socialist, as he describes himself – cannot win a general election, that Republicans cannot wait to have an ad that has the hammer and the sickle. You have kind of tiptoed around it. But this is crunch time. If you believe it, why not come right out and say it: "Bernie Sanders, you may love him, Iowa voters, but he cannot win a general election"?

CLINTON: Well I know, Savannah, that is exactly what a lot of Democrats are saying, a lot of elected Democrats, people who want to take back the Senate in the 2016 election, want to add to the numbers of Democrats in the House, and maybe make some progress –

GUTHRIE: Are you saying it?

CLINTON: – in governors and state legislatures. But I think it's fair to say that he has to run his campaign, and present his views. We have differences, and I've been pointing out those differences. I think that it's important for me to tell voters what I want to achieve, and how I will go about doing that. Because I want them to hold me accountable. Then it's going to be up to caucus goers tonight, primary voters next in New Hampshire, to decide who they think offers the best path forward to keep the progress that we've made going.
-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, February 1, 2016, during an interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC News. The question concerned Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Comment: This is an evasion. Clinton never answers the question of whether Sanders is electable in the general election, instead claiming that other Democrats believe Sanders is un-electable, and apparently saying the "voters must decide" whether they think Sanders can win. Of course, one of the ways for voters to decide whether they think voters can win is to consider the opinion of other Democrats, such as Clinton. Ironically, Clinton declares she wants to be "held accountable" even as she isn't answering the question that's been put to her.

At the end of the day, I am the mayor and I own it. I take responsibility for what happened and I will fix it. Nothing less than complete and total reform of the system and the culture will meet the standards we have to set for ourselves.
-- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, December 4, 2015, remarking on the investigation of the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police.

Comment: Emanuel is using "I take responsibility" rhetoric. Isn't it always the case that the mayor is responsible for supervising the police?

RITTIMAN: I do want to ask a judgment question. You used a small Denver company called Platte River Networks to manage your private server. It appears now that data off of that server got backed up to a cloud server somewhere else without your knowledge or consent. Platte River told me if it knew -- and it's not in the business of asking, but if it knew -- that you were planning to send State Department-type information through this system, this is not the system that they would have set you up with. You're the nation's top diplomat in that role. You've gotta know that what you're sending through communications is valuable to foreign intelligence. Why go with this system? Did any part of you think, 'Maybe this isn't a good idea'?

CLINTON: Well, look, I've taken responsibility for what I did, and it was a mistake. The State Department allowed it at the time. And I've tried to be as transparent as possible. I'll be appearing before the Congress next week and answering a lot of questions that they may have, although, now it's clear that this whole effort was set up for political partisan purposes, not to try to get to any useful end. But I'll be in a position to respond and the American people can listen and watch and draw their own conclusions.

RITTIMAN: To someone who thinks that that might have been a foolish move, what would you say about your judgment generally?

CLINTON: Well, nothing I sent or received was marked classified at the time. That is an absolute fact. It's been verified over and over and over again. So I think that we'll have a chance to explain what that means, if people don't understand it.
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, October 14, 2015, during interview with Brandon Rittiman of KUSA 9News.

Comment: Clinton is taking responsibility for her actions, though it's not clear what that means, particularly since she says the State Department let her do it. Does that mean the State Department is responsible, that the mistake was theirs? Clinton perhaps avoids answering the question about whether her decision to set up a private server demonstrated good judgment: if material could have been hacked, then wasn't it a bad idea? If it was the State Department's decision to let her set up a private server, then are they the ones guilty of poor judgment, and should Clinton have exercised good judgment by not letting the State Department make a bad decision?

MUIR: When voters were asked, "What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Hillary Clinton?", words like, "liar", "dishonest", "untrustworthy", were at the top of the list. Does this tell you that your original explanation about the private email server, that you did it to carry one phone out of convenience, that this didn't sit well with the American people?

CLINTON: Well, David, obviously I don't like hearing that. I am confident by the end of this campaign people will know they can trust me, and that I will be on their side and will fight for them and their families. But I do think I could have and should have done a better job answering questions earlier. I really didn't perhaps appreciate the need to do that. What I had done was allowed, it was above board. But in retrospect, certainly, as I look back at it now, even though it was allowed, I should have used two accounts. One for personal, one for work-related emails. That was a mistake. I'm sorry about that. I take responsibility. And I'm trying to be as transparent as I possibly can to not only release 55,000 pages of my emails, turn over my server. But I am looking forward, finally, to testifying before Congress, something I've been asking for for nearly a year.
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, September 8, 2015, during an interview with David Muir of ABC News.

Comment: Muir is using "Americans want" rhetoric in his question: certainly some Americans disapprove of Clinton's behavior and her subsequent explanations, but it's not clear they all feel that way. Clinton says she is taking responsibility for getting the information on her email server to the government, but wasn't this always something she had an obligation to do?

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday her department takes full responsibility for spilling 3 million gallons of mining waste that turned a southwest Colorado river an unnatural shade of orange, adding it “pains me to no end.”

Gina McCarthy made the comments as her agency comes under increased scrutiny after federal and contract workers accidentally unleashed the spill last week while inspecting the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado. The contaminated water that flowed into a tributary of the Animas and San Juan rivers contained high levels of arsenic, lead and other potentially toxic heavy metals. McCarthy expressed regret that the spill occurred and said her agency has “added responsibility here.”

“It is really a tragic and very unfortunate incident, and EPA is taking responsibility to ensure that that spill is cleaned up,” McCarthy said. “I am absolutely, deeply sorry that this ever happened.”
-- Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), August 11, 2015, as related in an Associated Press story. McCarthy was remarking on the Gold King Mine waste water spill.

Comment: McCarthy is saying that the EPA is taking responsibility for cleaning up the spill, but that was always understood to be the case, right?

The derailment of Northeast Regional Train 188 was a terrible tragedy that we are responding to with every resource we have available. The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation to determine the cause of the incident, and Amtrak is providing full cooperation. With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities. On behalf of the entire Amtrak family, I offer our sincere sympathies and prayers for them and their loved ones. Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event.
-- Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman, May 16, 2015, on the derailment of Train 188.

Comment: Boardman is saying that Amtrak takes responsibility for the derailment.

"This morning, I want to express our grief and condolences to the families of two hostages. One American, Dr. Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto, who were tragically killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation. Warren and Giovanni were aid workers in Pakistan devoted to improving the lives of the Pakistani people. After Warren was abducted by al Qaeda in 2011, I directed my national security team to do everything possible to find him and to bring him home safely to his family. And dedicated professionals across our government worked tirelessly to do so. We also worked closely with our Italian allies on behalf of Giovanni, who was kidnapped in 2012. Since 9/11, our counterterrorism efforts have prevented terrorist attacks and saved innocent lives both here in America, and around the world. And that determination to protect innocent life only makes the loss of these two men especially painful for all of us. Based on information and intelligence we have obtained, we believe that a U.S. counterterrorism operation targeting an al Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region accidently killed Warren and Giovanni this past January. Yesterday, I spoke with Warren’s wife Elaine and Prime Minister Renzi of Italy. As a husband and as a father, I cannot begin to imagine the anguish that the Weinstein and Lo Porto families are enduring today. I realize that there are no words that can ever equal their loss. I know that there is nothing that I can ever say or do to ease their heartache. And today, I simply want to say this: As President and as Commander-in-Chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families. … Already, I have directed a full review of what happened. We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made. We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated. And we will continue to do everything we can to prevent the loss of innocent lives -- not just innocent Americans, but all innocent lives in our counterterrorism operations."
-- President Barack Obama, April 23, 2015, discussing the deaths of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto.

Comment: Obama is taking responsibility for the deaths.

SCOTT: A lot of the headlines say that the president now almost a week later is taking responsibility for the party's losses in the midterms. Do you see it that way?

BEVAN: Well, not exactly, he kind of is, Jon. But he's putting the best spin he can on the result saying, look, this is the same result that we've been hearing in the last few elections which is the public wants Washington, D.C. to work. And so that's the president's take on it. He said the buck stops here but there's no indication that's going to change any of his staff or any of his policies moving forward. In fact, he said he thought that the policies were right they just needed to do a better job of selling them. That was one of the short comings they had from last Tuesday.
-- Pundit Tom Bevan, posted November 10, 2014, being interviewed by Jon Scott of Fox News.

Comment: Bevan is discussing the consequences (if any) of Obama taking responsibility for the Democrats' 2014 midterm loss.

President Barack Obama is taking blame for the Democratic drubbing in last week’s midterm elections, saying “the buck stops right here at my desk.”

“Whenever, as the head of the party, it doesn’t do well, I’ve got to take responsibility for it,” the president said in a wide-ranging interview aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
-- President Barack Obama, November 9, 2014, as related in a Politico story by Austin Wright.

Comment: Obama is taking responsibility for the Democrats' loss, but what does that mean? What did he do that caused or explains the loss, and what will the consequence of his being accountable?

Oregon Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, admitted on Thursday to entering into an illegal marriage in 1997, calling it a “serious mistake.”

“It was wrong then and it is wrong now and I am here today to accept the consequences, some of which will be life changing. And I cannot predict what direction this will go,” Hayes said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the Willamette Week released a story questioning the legitimacy of Hayes’ third marriage to an Ethiopian man, Abraham B. Abraham, who was 18 at the time of the marriage. Hayes was 29.

Hayes says she entered into the marriage so Abraham could stay in the United States.
-- Cylvia Hayes, October 9, 2014, as related in a Politico story by Kendall Breitman.

Comment: Hayes is taking responsibility for her behavior and saying she will accept unspecified consequences for it.

"Now, ultimately, this website,, will be the easiest way to shop for and buy these new plans, because you can see all these plans right next to each other and compare prices and see what kind of coverage it provides. But, look, there’s no denying it, right now, the website is too slow, too many people have gotten stuck. And I am not happy about it. And neither are a lot of Americans who need health care, and they’re trying to figure out how they can sign up as quickly as possible. So there’s no excuse for it. And I take full responsibility for making sure it gets fixed ASAP. We are working overtime to improve it every day."
-- President Barack Obama, October 30, 2013, addressing problems with the website

Comment: Obama is taking responsibility for fixing the website, though wasn't it always understood that he is responsible for fixing it?

KROFT: You came in running as an outsider, somebody who was going to change Washington. Do you still believe after three years in this gridlock that we've had that - that somebody who claims to be an outsider can get things accomplished in Washington?

OBAMA: Oh, yeah, look, I mean, we passed historic legislation that strengthened our financial regulations. We passed historic legislation that will not only provide 30 million more people coverage, but also insures that you know, kids can stay on their parents' health insurance plans until they are 26 and seniors have lower prescription drugs. And so change has happened and positive change for the American people. I'm the first one to confess that the spirit that I brought to Washington, that I wanted to see instituted, where we weren't constantly in a political slugfest, but were focused more on problem solving that, you know, I haven't fully accomplished that. Haven't even come close in some cases. And you know, if you ask me what's my biggest disappointment is that we haven't changed the tone in Washington as much as I would have liked.

KROFT: And you don't bear any responsibility for that?

OBAMA: Oh, I think that-- you know-- as president I bear responsibility for everything, to some degree and one of the things I've realized over the last two years is that that only happens if I'm enlisting the American people much more aggressively than I did the first two years.
-- President Barack Obama, posted September 23, 2012, during interview with Steve Kroft of CBS News.

Comment: Obama is taking responsibility for not bringing about a higher standard of debate.

"There’s the thinking that the President is somebody who is all powerful and can get everything done. In our branch of -- in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature; I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done. And so I am happy to take responsibility for the fact that we didn’t get it done, but I did not make a promise that I would get everything done, 100 percent, when I was elected as President."
-- President Barack Obama, September 20, 2012, during a town hall hosted by Univision. Obama was responding to a question about his failure to introduce immigration reform legislation in his first year in office.

Comment: Obama is taking responsibility, but what is the consequence of his doing so?

"I know that campaigns can seem small, and even silly. Trivial things become big distractions. Serious issues become sound bites. And the truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising. If you're sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me -- so am I."
-- President Barack Obama, September 6, 2012, addressing the Democratic National Convention.

Comment: Politicians frequently denounce campaign tactics in the abstract, without making any mention of whether they and their own campaign share any guilt. Apart from taking responsibility for being part of an "avalanche of advertising", this is what Obama is doing here. These kinds of denunciations in the abstract could be seen as implicitly making the "only my opponent" caricature: "I know there's a lot of misbehavior out there, but I'm not acknowledging that I'm engaging in any of it", which leaves your opponent as the most likely suspect. This might also be "unnamed antagonist" rhetoric.

"The principle here is a basic one. If local schools do not have the freedom to change, they cannot be held accountable for failing to change. Authority and accountability must be aligned at the local level, or schools will have a convenient excuse for failure. “I would have done it this way, but some central office or Washington, D.C., caused me to do it another way.” … Parents and children who have only bad options must eventually get good options, if we are to succeed all across the country. There are difference of opinions about what those options should be. I made my opinion very clear in the course of the campaign, and will take my opinion to the Hill and let folks debate it. Today, I was pleased to see that Senator Joe Lieberman brought up his plan that includes different options for parents. It’s a great place to begin. He and I understand that an accountability system must have a consequence; otherwise, it’s not much of an accountability system."
-- President George W. Bush, January 23, 2001.

Comment: Bush is calling for accountability in education, while giving an idea of what that would mean in practice.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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