Lance Armstrong joins the ranks of famous TV confessors

When Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey airs Thursday, he'll become a member of a very specific club: disgraced public figures who've addressed their wrongdoings by way of television. Whether the truth-telling is a matter of national concern or mostly a step in repairing an image (and often, a subsequent livelihood) the medium continues to be the most reliable way of getting a message out to the masses.

George Burns / Reuters
Cyclist Lance Armstrong is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 14.

When you look at some of the more notable mea culpas of the past several decades, they can be split mostly into two camps. First, there's the method we'll call the confessional. Whether doing it before a room full of reporters or scores of people watching at home, the apology basically consists of one uninterrupted speech delivered directly into the camera. Advantages here include being able to steer the message in whatever way is most productive. "It's quick, for a relatively painless and simple situation," Howard Bragman, longtime crisis publicist and vice chairman of Reputation.com tells TODAY.com. Disadvantages? Look again at that part about reporters and people watching at home. 

This was David Letterman's approach, when he came clean about an affair he had with a staffer. "I've had sex with women who work on this show," he said before a live audience in 2009.

Tiger Woods in 2012 did a more traditional press conference version of the confessional when he said he was "deeply sorry" for the numerous affairs he had and for his unbecoming behavior, and promised to "start living a life of integrity."

One of the most famous apologies that follows this trope goes back more than a decade, when in 2008 Bill Clinton addressed the American public and confessed that he "did have a relationship with Monica Lewinsky." 

It was a metered response in a prepared speech delivered in an environment that left little to dissect. A single close-up shot doesn't leave much for the body language experts to interpret; the only things to be picked apart were the words themselves. It's an approach that's much safer than the second approach, the no-less-opted-for interview confession. That approach is for "when you're really trying to drum up some emotional support," according to Bragman. While the reward for a successful mea culpa under these circumstances might be great, so are the risks. The line of questioning rests squarely in the hands of the interviewer and there's far more room for error.

Mel Gibson opted for this approach with Diane Sawyer, where he addressed an anti-Semitic rant during a traffic stop that landed him in headlines. He explained that he didn't know the arresting officer was Jewish, and "a few drinks later I was in the back of a police car, wailing."

Who can forget Hugh Grant's "Tonight Show" interview in 1995 after he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute? Jay Leno opened with "What the hell were you thinking?"

Of course, there have been others. Alec Baldwin apologized on "The View" for that infamous voice mail to his young daughter; Kanye West on "The Tonight Show" for interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards; the list goes on.

Odds are good that Armstrong's interview will be compared to another one conducted by Winfrey -- that of disgraced "A Million Little Pieces" author James Frey. After Winfrey sang the book's praises, it came to light that Frey fabricated vast portions of it. Winfrey confronted him about it in 2006, saying Frey "conned us all," but the two really hashed Frey's (and Winfrey's) missteps in 2011 during a lengthy interview that aired on OWN. "I created the situation," Frey said.

Regardless of the method of delivery, every on-air apology and confession has been dissected after the fact, and to varying degrees been labelled successful or not. Has every apology withstood the test of time? They have, insofar as we still talk about them. And one common denominator among them all stands out: in every case outlined above, the careers of the blighted have all marched on.

And after we're done questioning Armstrong the way each apologist before him has been questioned -- was he sincere? thorough? too calculating? REALLY sorry? -- that's what we'll be left to wonder. Can Armstrong make a comeback? If history is a predictor, then it looks like he can.

"But forgiveness is not an on/off switch," Bragman points out. "He (Armstrong) will need to take measure of time. Then, and only then can he start to rebuild something."

Which televised confession do you remember the best? Tell us on our Facebook page.

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    Image: CYCLING-USA-ARMSTRONG-FILES

    Lance Armstrong’s controversial career

    The cyclist’s historic run of Tour de France championships made headlines, as did his fall from grace after being stripped of the titles in 2012.

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    A legend before the fall -

    Lance Armstrong battled back from life-threatening cancer to become a cycling legend, winning seven Tour de France titles. However, allegations of performance-enhancing drug use followed him throughout his career, and in 2012, he was stripped of all seven of his Tour titles after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released evidence of use and distribution the substances.
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    An early champion -

    Armstrong began his professional racing career in triathlon. At age 17, he competed in the Jeep Triathlon Grand Prix in May 1988. He was the national sprint-course champion in 1989 and 1990.
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    Shift in focus -

    In 1992, Armstrong turned his focus completely to cycling and joined the Motorola team.
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    Early Tour success -

    Armstrong raises his arms as crosses the finish line to win the 8th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Chalons-sur-Marne and Verdun, France on July 11, 1993. He won a several individual stages of the race what would define his career before being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996.
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    Ultimate fight -

    Armstrong lies in a bed during treatment for testicular cancer at Indiana University School of Medicine Hospital lying in Indianapolis in November 1996. He was diagnosed at age 25 at stage three, an advanced stage of the disease, and was given less than a 40 percent chance of survival. By the time he began treatment, the cancer had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. After several surgeries and months of chemotherapy, he was declare cancer-free in February 1997.
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    Maillot jaune -

    Armstrong puts on the Maillot jaune -- the yellow jersey -- after winning the prologue of the 1999 Tour de France. He would go on to win three more stages before claiming the overall title. He beat the second-place finisher, Alex Zulle, by seven minutes and 37 seconds.
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    Overall leader Lance Armstrong, left in yellow, and the rest of the pack climb Tamie pass during the ninth stage of the 1999 Tour de France. Armstrong won the stage, and eventually the race.
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    Testing -

    Armstrong exits the doping control area after being tested for performance-enhancing drugs on July 4, 1999. Speculation about possible substance use began to surface in 1999.
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    Celebration -

    Armstrong carried the U.S. flag as he took his victory lap on the Champs Elysees in Paris after winning the Tour de France on July 25, 1999.
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    A presidential gift -

    President Clinton picks up a light-weight racing bicycle presented to him as a gift by Armstrong in the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday, August 10, 1999.
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    U.S. Postal team -

    The U.S. Postal team, with Armstrong at the lead, competes in the fourth stage of the 2000 Tour de France, a team time trial between Nantes and Saint-Nazaire. Armstrong joined the team in 1997 during this recovery from testicular cancer treatment.
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    Family celebration -

    Armstrong holds his son Luke as his then-wife Kristin looks after the cyclist won the Tour de France on July 23, 2000. He beat rival Jan Ullrich by six minutes and two seconds.
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    Ahead of the field -

    Between 1999 and 2005, Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles.
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    Lone star -

    Armstrong flew the Texas state flag as he rode up the Champs Elysees to win the 2001 Tour, beating Jan Ullrich by six minutes, 44 seconds.
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    Riding for a cause -

    Armstrong carries the Olympic flame while riding with a group of cancer survivors in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 11, 2001, during the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Torch Relay.
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    Advocate -

    President Bush was joined by Armstrong as he spoke about cancer and increased research spending on Sept. 18, 2002, at the White House.
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    No. 4 -

    Armstrong holds up the winners tropy after winning the 2002 Tour De France on July 28 in Paris.
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    Dodging disaster -

    Armstrong takes his bike in the grass to continue the race after avoiding Spaniard Joseba Beloki, who fell down at the end of the ninth stage of the 2003 Tour de France between Bourg d'Oisans and Gap.
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    Jan Ullrich of Germany, right, evades Iban Mayo of Spain, center, and overall leader Lance Armstrong after Armstrong and Mayo fell in the final ascent towards Luz-Ardiden, during the 15th stage of the 2003 Tour de France. Armstrong won the stage, Ullrich finished in third place.
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    Livestrong -

    In May 2004, Nike and the Lance Armstrong Foundation joined forces and created the bracelet campaign. Each of the bright yellow wristbands cost $1 each, with all proceeds going to the foundation. Nike agreed to donate an additional $1 million to the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
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    Something to Crow about -

    Armstrong kisses girlfriend Sheryl Crow after he put on the yellow jersey as overall leader at the end of the 15th stage of the 2004 Tour de France. Armstrong won a five individual stages of the race, as well as the team time trial. He won the race, beating Andreas Kloden by six minutes, 19 seconds.
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    A record day -

    Armstrong, still riding for the U.S. Postal team, became the first six-time winner of the Tour de France on July 25, 2004.
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    Final victory -

    Armstrong waves a paper reading "7" before the 21st stage of the Tour de France on July 24, 2005. At age 33, Armstrong won his seventh title, beating Ivan Basso by four minutes, 40 seconds. He had announced earlier that he was retiring from cycling.
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    Family affair -

    Armstrong celebrates his seventh Tour victory with his three children -- Luke, Grace and Isabelle -- on the winners' podium on July 24, 2005.
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    New focus -

    Armstrong speaks as cancer survivors look on during a news conference on May 17, 2006 on Capitol Hill in Washington. One hundred cancer survivors from all 50 states joined Armstrong to call on the Congress to invest in resources, treatment and services for cancer patients.
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    Marathoner -

    Armstrong competed in the 2006 New York City Marathon, finishing with a time of two hours, 59 minutes and 36 seconds and helped to raise more than $600,000 for his Livestrong charity.
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    Media pitch -

    Armstrong speaks with the late Tim Russert, right, during a taping of "Meet the Press" on Aug. 24, 2007 at the NBC studios in Washington. Armstrong spoke about continuing efforts to help battle cancer and encourage funding and development to combat the disease.
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    Return to cycling -

    Armstrong announced that he would return to competitive cycling at the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 24, 2008 in New York.
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    Armstrong, riding for the Astana team, is cheered by fans as he rides on July 22, 2009 in the 17th stage of the Tour de France. He finished the race in third place, five minutes and 24 seconds behind the overall winner, teammate Alberto Contador.
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    New team -

    Armstrong rides in a breakaway during stage 16 of the Tour de France on July 20, 2010 in Pau, France. Armstrong joined Team RadioShack in 2010, and was named the team leader.
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    Armstrong speaks to the media following the end of 8th stage of the 2010 Tour de France. During the stage, he crashed twice and lost 11 minutes to the leading group. Despite helping Team RadioShack claim the team competition, Armstrong finished in 23rd place in his final Tour de France.
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    Return to triathlon -

    Armstrong crosses the finish line of the Rev3 triathlon with his 10-year-old twin daughters Grace, left, and Isabelle, right, on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 in Ellicott City, Md. Armstrong joined other cancer survivors in the event, which raised funds for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.
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    Final statement -

    Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) President Pat McQuaid leaves a press conference on Oct. 22, 2012, after announcing that the UCI would accept the U.S. Anti-Doping Association's recommended sanctions, which called for a lifetime ban and stripped him of his Tour de France titles. At the briefing, McQuaid said: "Armstrong has no place in cycling. He deserves to be forgotten."
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    Stepping down -

    Lance Armstrong makes an appearance at the Livestrong's 15th anniversary gala on Oct. 19, 2012. Two days earlier, he resigned as director of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
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    Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey interviews cyclist Lance Armstrong during taping for the show "Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive" in Austin, Texas.

    "I think the entire interview was difficult" for Armstrong, Winfrey said. “He was pretty forthcoming.”

    The two-part episode of "Oprah's Next Chapter" will air nationally Thursday and Friday, Jan. 17-18.
    George Burns / Harpo Studios, Inc. via AP

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