Mitch slaps

Apr 13, 2005 at 12:00 am

News Hits is fascinated by the published apology Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom made last week. The best-selling author, radio talk-show host, TV personality, playwright and all-around star issued a short mea culpa for, in his words, making an incorrect “assumption.”

Far be it from us to disagree with a wordsmith of Albom’s caliber, but the hacks here at Hits think he pulled the wrong noun out of his thesaurus this time. The word Mitch needed was not assumption, but fabrication, because the guy was flat-out making crap up.

Here’s the deal: Albom interviewed former Michigan State basketball stars Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson before MSU’s Final Four showdown against North Carolina on April 2. Both players apparently told Albom they would be attending the game. The column, which ran in the Sunday commentary section of the combined News and Free Press, had a Friday deadline. The game was on Saturday. Albom assumed the two former Spartans, both of whom now play in the NBA, would be at the game as planned, and wrote a piece that described Cleaves and Richardson sitting together and reminiscing about their college hoop days. He told how they flew to the game, one on a private plane, the other on a commercial airline. Albom described what the two men wore as they sat in the stands and rooted for their alma mater — all the while leaving the distinct impression that he was at the game with them, taking down their words as they spoke.

But the two players never showed. And Albom got caught with his pants down, exposing his, ahem, fabrication.

One point of interest in all this is Albom’s attempt to downplay the significance of his transgression. “You can’t write that something happened that didn’t, even if it’s just who sat in the stands,” Albom wrote in his apology. “Perhaps it seems a small detail to you — the players still love their teams, they are still nostalgic, they simply decided not to go after the column had been filed — but details are the backbone of journalism, and planning to be somewhere is not the same as being there.”

Small detail? It’s as if there would’ve been no problem had the two players simply attended the game.

In the opinion of News Hits, that’s not the real issue. This is: Albom wrote a piece intentionally designed to deceive his readers. Even if Cleaves and Richardson had made the game as planned, Albom’s column would’ve been built on the implicit lie that he was there watching the action with them, talking to the players as the game unfolded, recording the conversation.

The backbone of journalism is honesty, Mitch. And your mistake was not making an incorrect assumption. It was manufacturing fiction.

Readers can check the overwhelmingly critical response to Albom’s attempt at journalistic sleight of hand posted online by Jim Romenesko at the Poynter Institute (, a journalistic think tank. Among the items was a story in the Chicago Tribune by Michael Hirsley, who reported, “Reaction in the journalism community, from columnist peers to college instructors, ranged from harsh to empathetic. But no one excused or forgave Albom’s or his copy editors’ errors in judgment. And no one dismissed those mistakes as insignificant.”

Industry mag Editor & Publisher quoted Suzette Martinez Standring calling Albom’s column “bogus” and his action an “egregious ethical lapse.”

In another E&P story about the issue, senior editor Joe Strupp wrote, “Anyone in the business knows that if any other reporter had done such a thing, he’d be fired, or at least suspended for a lengthy stint. Of course, when you are Mitch Albom you can write about Saturdays with Michigan State and it doesn’t have to be true.”

Others were more willing to show leniency. On the Poynter Institute Web site, Deborah Wilker wrote, “Yeah, Mitch Albom never, ever should have stretched that far — but why are we suddenly all over him (’cause he's rich and famous and an easy target?) when variations of this nonsense have gone on in some form or another forever?”

No doubt there are some who are feeling glee at seeing someone as successful as Albom take a stumble, but even if we tried to be charitable (never one of our strong points), News Hits can see no justification for allowing Albom to get away with a wrist slap for an infraction as serious as this. The guy’s a well-seasoned pro, not some rookie still finding his way.

In a front-page story last week, Freep publisher and editor Carole Leigh Hutton announced that an investigation had been launched. Albom’s work will not appear in the paper while that inquiry is under way. But don’t expect a franchise player like Mitch, author of the wildly successful books Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, to be sent packing.

The decision to retain Albom appears to be a done deal. Dave Robinson, a Freep deputy managing editor, is quoted in E&P as saying Albom’s transgression “was a serious offense but not a firing offense.”

Not everyone shares that opinion. The Tribune story quoted Randy Harvey, Baltimore Sun assistant managing editor for sports, as saying, “I don’t see how they will have any choice at the end of their investigation but to fire Mitch and the editor or editors who read the column.

We’re eager to learn whether Albom got caught the first and only time he tried pulling a trick like this, or if he’s previously committed this stunt or others without anyone noticing.

Interestingly Albom, who is still much hated by many of his brethren for crossing the picket line when union members at the Freep and The Detroit News went out on strike in 1995, showed little sympathy for serial fabricator Jayson Blair, a former New York Times reporter caught making up all sorts of stuff a while back.

In May 2003, Albom wrote a column taking Blair to task. We don’t mean to imply that Albom represents the second coming of Blair, but we do think it’s instructive to draw attention to a couple of points Albom made in that piece.

“In the days after Jayson Blair resigned in shame from The New York Times, everyone tried to reach him. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines, old friends, colleagues. He spoke to almost no one.”

Now it’s Mitch who’s not returning calls, including the one from us seeking comment.

Chastising Blair for attempting to cash in on his misdeeds by trying to turn them into book and movie deals, Albom wrote, “What he doesn’t get is that journalism is not Hollywood. It’s not about closing the deal. It’s not about face time. It’s about — simply put — telling the truth.

“On that he failed miserably …”

And, in this case, so did Mitch.

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