Wow.. I stumbled on this subject when I went to SO.meta to post about perceived decline in quality of answers and increasingly level of garbage, so I was going to ask about whether or not there was a decline in interest as well as lapse of moderation.
It took a great deal of time to figure out the sequence of events and try to get the nuances of the whole ordeal, and I am sure there is a lot happening behind the scenes that we "mere mortals" don't get to see.
I don't have the rep to write this on the SE.meta where the "apologies" from the SE staff came out, so it partially relates to your post @StrongBad, and partially to the subject as a whole. I hope you forgive me if parts of what I write here don't seem relevant to you.
Speculating at the "why"
I feel this is extremely discouraging but to some extent a natural consequence of the near exponential growth of SE sites.* The main income of these sites is traffic so as the network grew, it needed to cater to a larger and larger crowd. The way I see it that has several critical and profound challenges (in no particular order):
It became harder and harder to have guidelines that was relevant and agreeable for all the communities.
SE staff became more and more distanced from the community, I remember the times where the SE staff would often post on Meta, and occasionally give insights to the way the company reasoned behind the scenes. They weighed in on feature requests as well as encouraged growth on newer communities
As the network grew hungrier for new users, and reach out to more people, the level of "noise" increased. Here I mean duplicate, low-quality questions and answers. The need for moderation increases as the crowd increases. This too has an important implication, as the community grows in size, the dissent also increases. Despite sometimes pretending otherwise, there are inevitable differences even within a community. What seems like a normal way to express an opinion to one person may come across as offensive or insulting to another. There are cultural components to that, as well as other personal factors which are clearly hard (if not impossible) to know in advance. So staff, moderators and users will likely clash at some point, inevitably so...
Together with the previous item, as the network grew the perceived value of the network may have changed in the eyes of the "subject-matter-experts", especially if the "noise" is not kept below a certain level.
Where I stand
All that being said, I am not sure where we are headed. I don't believe it'll be "business as usual" not after this much turmoil. I also don't believe things will be "fixed". Most of all I don't believe in the sincerity of the apologies provided by the SE staff.
Personally I don't really care about how they will do right by the people they have wronged, that's between company and the individuals. I don't care for the apologies, since I trust actions not the words.** I also don't care much about the change of CoC relating to the use of pronouns (possibly because my native language does not use different pronouns based on gender).
What I do care about is how the company treats people who volunteer to improve their product. Let's remember one thing, the primary unique value proposition of this place is the fact that this is a place that brings "experts and enthusiasts" together, where we help each other solve our problems, learn and grow. So we bring the value, they provide the medium. In other words, we are the product not necessarily the customer. Let's try to keep that in mind.
Moderators especially voluntarily take time to improve the site, and to make sure there is productive, respectful and civil discourse. As far as I know (please correct me otherwise) community moderators get zero financial benefits for doing the extra work.
That's the real issue in my eyes, the network is too large, perhaps too large to fail. So they probably feel (or felt) that roughing some feathers is not gonna be an issue. There will be people sticking around, or joining a year or two down the road, to provide the content. They treat their main assets as expendable objects. That's what I find the most troubling!
Last but not least I have no trust what-so-ever for the staff/executives at SE, for no other reason than that they are representing a company. Companies have financial interests, and in general (at least in my experience) only care for their customers (or ethical/moral standpoints) when it's profitable i.e. when not doing that would be harmful for business.
Trust is an inherently human thing; I trust the people I can shake hands with, look into the eyes of, and perhaps, have a beer with. I don't trust anyone that's on the other side of the ocean from me, and more importantly has a vested financial interest in the subject matter.
That's what I would have liked to write as an answer to David's or Sara's "apology". You want to win back people's trust, show them you actually care about the community, and not see them as a business asset.
* Not immediately relevant perhaps, but the company is based in NYC as far as I know and I am guessing at some point they have started to cave in to pressures of finances, reason in the more conventional terms of economics and profitability.
** When I was reading the apologies provided by SE staff, specifically David and Sara, it is clear to me that the language has been carefully structured, probably heavily consulted by the legal team. In that sense, reminiscent of the apology letters/statements by professional athletes after some PR scandal.
I see no remorse, and no acknowledgement of what really went wrong. I also see no real change in sight. It's essentially; "our game our rules, if you don't like it then stop playing"