He’s so sorry

Mitch Albom must have spent much of his brief paid suspension hanging out in cut-rate delis, because the Sunday column that marked his return to print was jam packed with cheap cheese and rancid baloney.

News Hits isn’t certain what turned our stomachs most about the piece in the Free Press — Mitch’s absolute refusal to admit his true transgression, the attempt to downplay the significance of that ethical breach, or his blatant attempt to generate sympathy because of the battering he’s taken. Poor, poor Mitch.

We all know the background. Mitch talked to two former Michigan State basketball players before their alma mater made an appearance at the Final Four. They told Mitch they planned to attend. Mitch wrote a column before the game, writing as if that scenario had already occurred. Then the players’ plans fell through, and Mitch’s fraud was exposed.

“I assumed something would happen that didn’t,” Mitch explained Sunday.

But there’s a huge problem with that explanation. The implication is, if those two players had just shown up for the game as they said they would, everything would have been kosher. But that’s flat-out wrong. And you don’t have to take our word for that.

“We tell the truth. We do not publish made-up material … We don’t imply we have witnessed events we haven’t seen or been in places we haven’t been.”

That’s item No. 1 from the Free Press ethics policy. And that is exactly the rule Mitch violated. He didn’t make an incorrect assumption. He wrote a column that in a very calculated way was designed to deceive. He wanted to create the impression that he was at that Final Four game with those two players, sitting there with them while they reminisced about their college days, taking notes as they talked.

Mitch calls what he did a careless mistake. Wrong. It was a deliberate fabrication. No matter how you cut it, Mitch committed one of journalism’s cardinal sins, and his continued attempts to tap dance around that hard fact are pitiful and deserving of scorn.

So are his efforts to ameliorate the significance of that breach. In his column, Mitch points out that his error wasn’t malicious and didn’t hurt the subjects. What he did hurt was the profession he says provides him with such boundless joy.

Urging us to keep the whole hullabaloo in proper perspective, Mitch does his damnedest to earn our sympathy by tugging on the same heartstrings he’s plucked so well and so often over the years. To that end, he noted the encouragement received from his beloved readers, including one particularly moving letter from a wheelchair-bound hockey player. The pathos of that is typically Mitch.

News Hits didn’t receive any messages like that when we first wrote about Mitch’s problem. We did, however, receive a letter from a guy in Royal Oak who chided us for our naïveté, saying no thinking person believes anything the media feed them. And that is exactly why what Mitch did is so serious: He reinforced the perception of pervasive duplicity in the media, making things even harder for every honest journalist out there trying to maintain credibility.

For the record, News Hits wasn’t among those calling for Albom’s head. Few of us make it through life without screwing up monumentally at some point, so a little compassion is not a bad thing. If this, indeed, is the only time Mitch produced such a fabrication, then a long, unpaid suspension would have been appropriate.

But he appears to have skated without even a slap on the wrist. We say appears because, despite her assertion that the Albom affair needed to be dealt with transparently, Freep publisher and editor Carole Leigh Hutton is keeping mum about how Albom has been dealt with. Along with reinstating Mitch before the results of the paper’s story investigating the whole matter has appeared, Hutton’s silence has made the whole process as transparent as a brick wall.

We were, however, provided a clear glimpse of Mitch the Magnanimous in Sunday’s piece. Despite being pilloried by all those who blew the significance of this whole assumption thing way out of proportion, Mitch is willing to refrain from lashing back in anger, even at those lousy journalists who got some facts wrong when reporting about the scandal. Of course, if Mitch had been a stand-up guy and answered calls from reporters instead of being a weasel and refusing them, maybe some of those errors would have been avoided.

But instead of rancor, Mitch wants to turn this into an object lesson, especially for all those adorable schoolkids out there who diligently study his prose as they prepare to become journalists themselves. Along with urging them to avoid making incorrect assumptions, Mitch offers this advice to the kids out there: “If you mess up, say you’re sorry, as I am saying again.”

But apologies mean nothing if you refuse to recognize and admit your true transgression. Despite all the contrition, that’s something Mitch Albom still hasn’t done.

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