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02/23/2007 Archived Entry: "Requiem for Jim Zumbo"

I WAS FEELING SOME SCHADENFREUDE YESTERDAY (never a good sign) as the last of Jim Zumbo's sponsors abandoned him.

Actually, there was no need to wait for the last of them to speak up. By Thursday morning, there was nothing left to sponsor. His TV show, his columns ... all canceled, all gone. A 42-year career as an outdoor writer and personality was over, thanks to one ignorant, inflammatory anti-gun blurt and his "digging the hole even deeper" apology.

The sponsors had done the right thing, both for their own economic interests and (for once) for freedom. But what a devastating swoop it was. What a lightspeed coup angry gun owners had pulled. Once again we watched the Internet's Godzilla-like power to destroy.

Then Ted Nugent, a long-time friend of Zumbo's, announced that Zumbo would come to his discussion forums to answer questions and perhaps to begin rebuilding some of those torn up bridges. Zumbo came on and made a far more meaningful apology. Then ... nothing.

The apology was sincere. I think most forum participants were willing to believe that. But it still showed a huge level of Not Getting-Itness. Zumbo still obviously believed that the whole controversy had been over "whether it's okay to hunt with an AR-type rifle." People remained angry. They had specific issues they wanted Zumbo to address.

Patient long-time members of The Nuge Board put up with a flood of n00bs (like me) signing up to ask Zumbo questions. The thread ballooned quickly. But one person simply wasn't there: Zumbo. Questions went unanswered. The "dialog" went in one direction and nothing came back.

People began to speculate (in other forums) that Zumbo had never actually been there, that Nugent had posted a canned statement for him. Finally Zumbo made a few appearences. He answered one question solely related to hunting. He clarified whether he had been fired from Outdoor Life or resigned. Under pressure, he posted two messages saying I'm reading; give me time. He reiterated that he truly had said he was sorry. Otherwise ... silence from the man who'd agreed to come to The Nuge Board to answer questions. His silence evoked even more anger.

Why wasn't Zumbo talking to the people he'd agreed to talk with? Was he overwhelmed by the barrage? Was he too elitist to dialog with the people he'd implied just days earlier were "terrorists"? Too busy? Too tired? Was he just plain sorry he'd ever agreed to this whole exercise? Nobody could know.

Nugent had given Zumbo the only chance he was likely to get to redeem himself before gun owners, and Zumbo, for whatever reason, was blowing it. In public relations, when you've screwed up, the way out is to come forward, take your licks, but to manage the disaster. You state your error without weaseling (as Zumbo finally did). But you also state specifically what you're going to do to make it right. You have a plan. You articulate the plan -- which immediately deflects vast amounts of hostility. You show regret, but also resolution. You take questions and you give clear, straightforward answers that let people know you're not trying to deceive or evade. You heed their input. Then you put your plan into action.

It's possible, by being unequivocal and proactive, to recover from far, far worse disasters than the one Jim Zumbo inflicted on himself.

If Zumbo wanted to talk with gun owners at all, he should have said something like, "I'm here for two hours. I'll answer what I can in that time. I'll give you the respect you deserve, but please also give me the chance to answer questions without further beating. I've fallen as low as I can go. Now help me climb up so I can do the right thing from here on, please."

The Nuge gave him a supreme chance to begin that climb. Zumbo responded by making the most classic of public relations blunders. Zumbo would have been better off to say, "Screw the whole lot of you; I think what I think and I don't give a damn about your opinions," than to agree to a Q&A, then fall silent. He would have been better off to not to appear at all, or to wait until he was better prepared, than to appear and then disappear without a strong attempt to resolve the real issues.

For what it's worth, I don't believe Zumbo "owes" gun owners anything. We already defeated him and there's no glory or goodness for us in continuing to excoriate him. He could have kept silent and just faded away. Coming to The Nuge Board took balls. But once he agreed to talk with us, he should have ... well, talked with us. And for his own sake, he should have used some elementary savvy in establishing the boundaries, direction, and tone of the discussion.

I gave up by page 26, figuring Zumbo was gone for good, or for ill. On that same page, a member called Not About Hunting posted the apology Jim Zumbo should have written (scroll down the page). Many people had excellent comments. Others were disgracefully rude. Some of us were pretty freaking self-righteous. All together, the thread became blindingly repetitive.

On TCF, John DeWitt said we were behaving like people demanding that Zumbo participate in a Stalinist show-trial.

This morning the thread is up to page 37 -- and that after one of the moderators pruned out pages of name-calling posts. Still no Zumbo. The discussion is calmer and some of it of high quality and thoughtfulness. But without Zumbo to give it direction, it's not going anywhere.

I admit that when it initially became obvious Zumbo wasn't answering questions my reaction was that the man considered himself too good to talk with the likes of us. But as he made his few obviously befuddled replies then disappeared, I started to feel ashamed.

We can't know why Zumbo isn't answering. He's not saying. His responses (and non-responses) appeared, above all, to come from weakness. It finally occurred to me that maybe we're not dealing with an elitist hunter who's thoughtlessly willing to sacrifice our guns because he's confident the banners will never take his. What if Jim Zumbo is simply an old man whom time has passed by? What if he's just some guy who can't cope? Can't cope with "newfangled" things like the Internet. Can't cope with those funny-looking rifles some of the new guys are hunting with. Can't cope with crisis management and public relations. What if his mind just doesn't work quickly enough to deal with the rapidity of an Internet Q&A? What if he's just ... obsolete?

The old Phil Ochs/Joan Baez song "There But For Fortune" ran through my mind all evening. We're all likely to be old and out of touch, eventually. How hideously painful to do it right in public -- if indeed that's what's happening with Zumbo. Instead of feeling triumphal as one small part of the righteous grassroots activist movement that brought evil gun-banner Jim Zumbo down, I began to feel that maybe I'd actually been part of a mob that hounded a clueless old man into disgrace. With Zumbo not speaking, there's no way to know.

In either case he did bring his problems on himself. He made himself a liability to all who care about their right to bear arms. It's one thing to get out of touch with modernity, another to get out of touch with the tools that are an integral part of your trade and your freedoms. He deserved his downfall. I'm not at all sorry we brought him so low. But after he had already fallen, I'm not sure he deserved ... us.

Posted by Claire @ 10:14 AM CST

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