Free Press for Mitch

Oct 8, 2003 at 12:00 am

Mitch Albom, the Detroit Free Press’ decorated sports columnist, has become a one-man multimedia empire. His essays on sports, culture and other issues often appear on Page 1. Albom also has his own radio talk show. He’s a regular commentator on ESPN’s panel TV show “The Sports Reporters.” He’s a musician and songwriter.

But it was his book, Tuesdays with Morrie, that launched the diminutive scribe into the literary ionosphere. Published in 1997, the book spent more than two years on the best seller list and has sold 6 million copies.

Now Albom has a new book, The Five People You Meet In Heaven. Unlike Tuesdays with Morrie, which was a memoir, Albom’s new book is a novel. Based on the phenomenon that Tuesdays became — including a stage play and TV movie starring Jack Lemmon — Albom’s foray into fiction is expected to be another best seller. The publisher, Hyperion, ordered a first printing of 500,000 copies.

Yet the Free Press won’t be reviewing The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Some editors there thought it irresponsible not to review it, and to avoid the appearance of conflict-of-interest they commissioned a freelance reviewer to tackle the assignment.

But Carole Leigh Hutton, the Freep’s executive editor, killed that review, which thoroughly panned the novel. (That verboten critique, penned by Carlo Wolff, appears here.)

Hutton’s column in Sunday’s Freep attempted to snuff the ethical inferno. Instead, she poured gasoline on it. She says in so many words that she didn’t like the “hurtful” review, and killed it because she won’t publish reviews that denigrate her minions.

Curiously, in an interview and in her column, Hutton denies telling a Florida journalist, “I didn’t like it, I killed it.” That’s pretty vivid stuff, and that writer, Chauncey Mabe of the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, says he quoted Hutton accurately. He’s outraged that she would suggest otherwise.

It’s odd that Hutton would accuse another journalist of misquoting her when her own column only reinforces the sentiment contained in that very quote.

She harrumphs that a multimillionaire media sensation like Albom doesn’t need her protection. Then she explains why she protected him.

The column’s opening line: “In the end, it came down to a decision about how I want the Free Press to treat its employees.”

Which is, according to Hutton, unlike the treatment the Freep gives to everyone else. She sees it as her solemn duty to protect Albom and his fellow Freepsters from the very sort of criticism they dish out daily. (Meanwhile, somebody might want to remind Hutton that Albom wrote Heaven for Hyperion, not the Free Press. He reportedly got in excess of $5 million — according to the Freep — to do so.)

I’ve seen editors contort ethics and invoke double standards to cover for writers before. But Hutton is the first I’ve ever seen try to justify it so clumsily in print.

Hutton cites the Freep’s “unwritten policy of not reviewing the work of colleagues.”

That “unwritten” policy is also apparently unspoken. In January, Freep theater critic Martin F. Kohn went to New York to review the stage production of Tuesdays with Morrie, a script that Albom co-wrote. (The play was not staged in Detroit.) Kohn effused that the two lead actors “do magnificent work,” and that “whatever emotional response the play gets from its audience is honestly earned.”

Hutton discloses that the “unwritten” policy will now be committed to paper, a development that may bring some relief to perplexed Freep journos.

“There’s all sorts of informal policies that you only find out are informal policies when someone has you in their office yelling at you,” says a longtime Freepster who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re informal as in, ‘We’ll inform you later.’”

The disgruntled journalist was just warming up:

“I think everybody’s embarrassed. Killing this review makes us look like a very provincial, backwater paper. I don’t think the governor or the mayor could keep something out of the paper that Mitch Albom can. He’s the franchise here. He’s Michael Jordan. He doesn’t want to come to practice, he doesn’t come to practice. He still starts and he still gets the big contract and the endorsements.

“It’s a little scary that our editor is willing to risk her reputation to keep him happy. Everybody’s afraid of her because she’s very tough. She rules through fear. But it turns out there is someone she’s afraid of: Mitch.”

Hutton says Albom had no say in her decision to spike the review. Efforts to reach Albom were unsuccessful. His voice-mailbox at the Freep was full and not accepting new messages. A sports desk editor suggested I call his radio show. Hutton says she thinks he’s on a book tour.

Wolff, who lives near Cleveland, tells me that Sharon Wilmore, the Freep’s assistant managing editor for features, contacted him in August about reviewing The Five People You Meet in Heaven. He says Wilmore asked for 1,000 words.

Wolff says he submitted his critique a week ahead of deadline and was told it would appear as the lead book review Sunday, Sept. 21. He was then informed that Hutton had pulled the review but that it had been rescheduled for Sept. 28. He received a call Sept. 23 informing him that the review had been permanently unrescheduled.

Wolff, 60, whose reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and San Francisco Chronicle, says Wilmore apologized to him, saying, “We thought we were doing the right thing, and I’m really, really sorry you got caught in the middle of it.”

“I feel intellectually insulted,” Wolff says. “I think it’s puzzling that a paper that celebrates the quality of its star columnist does not have enough confidence in him to roll with the punches that come with his being a public figure.”

The Free Press has, indeed, celebrated Albom’s ascendance with what Hutton describes in an interview as “news coverage.” That coverage could be characterized as orgiastic.

On Dec. 5, 1999, the day Tuesdays with Morrie debuted on ABC-TV, the Freep published a fawning 2,000-word Q&A interview with Albom, conducted by Freep books writer Marta Salij.

Albom himself has referred to Tuesdays too many times to recount in his columns, which frequently feature excruciatingly long tags that provide schedules of his book-signings and other appearances.

On Sept. 25, the Freep published a “news” story about the impending release of the new book. It carried the headline: “Bookstores turn to ‘Heaven’: Expectations high for Mitch Albom novel. ...”

Yet in the face of all this yeasty puffery, Hutton couldn’t muster the fortitude to throw in a dash of leavening in the form of an independent critique.

She writes in her apologia that the review she torpedoed was commissioned “by an editor I respect and admire.”

To which I say: No, Carole, you don’t. If you respected the editor, you would have respected the editor’s decision, which was sound.

Instead, you humiliated the editor and everyone else who works for you, perhaps Mitch Albom included.

Jeremy Voas is editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]