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Taking Responsibility: Japan Puts Americans to Shame

What's the difference between Peter Arnett and Ryutaro Hashimoto? The CNN star and Japan's Prime Minister were both in the news, musing about the nature of responsibility.

After his Liberal Democratic Party took a pasting in parliamentary elections, Hashimoto resigned. "The results are attributable to my lack of ability. We could not live up to the people's expectations, and it is all my responsibility," he said.

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But when CNN had to retract its story about US troops using nerve gas during the Vietnam war, Mr. Arnett said he was "never informed that my face on the air gave me responsibility for a major story."

Meanwhile his boss, CNN president Richard Kaplan - whose responsibilities presumably do include keeping his reporters from reading fiction on the air - confessed he "thought about" resigning, but concluded such an act would itself be irresponsible. On CNN's "Reliable Sources," Mr. Kaplan told viewers: "When something happens in your department, in your division, under your responsibilities, you immediately ... you want to take responsibility for it, and certainly resignation is a possibility, but what it really comes down to and, as you start to be more responsible about it, you look ... I really didn't have an opportunity to get to the truth of it. I was not part of the investigation that ... turned into bad journalism."

It's not my fault, it wasn't me. It was just my face, or people working for me. You won't hear whining like that in Japan. Japan may only be the world's No. 2 economic power, but when it comes to shame, well, they put the world to shame.

Not only do Americans lack any real sense of shame, we've invented whole industries to help us avoid it. Consider the modern "spin doctor," famously compared by Donald Regan - President Reagan's chief of staff - to the guy in the circus parade who follows the elephants with a broom. When a US politician or business leader fouls up, his "handlers" step in to distance the mess from the person who made it.

Thus, Watergate was a "third-rate burglary" and Ronald Reagan was "out of the loop" during the Iran-Contra scandal. What's that about success having 1,000 fathers and failure being an orphan? Could Bill Clinton, or any of his recent predecessors credibly display Harry Truman's "The Buck Stops Here" sign?

When the story turned out to be bogus, CNN's spin doctors knew the news organization's credibility depended on rapid and full disclosure, but they couldn't teach the network's employees how to stop passing the buck and feel some Japanese-style responsibility.

And that's a shame.

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* William S. Klein is a political and media consultant in Silver Spring, Md.

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