The Albom ethics flap

Some years ago, one of my brothers, to whom I was not at that time personally close, wrote a long letter to Metro Times attacking one of my columns in a tone that seemed more personal than issue-driven. Naturally, this was embarrassing to me.

The editor at the time told me about it, though I can’t recall whether she showed it to me before it appeared. I do remember asking whimsically if it alleged that I was having an improper relationship with my guinea pig Chickopee (now deceased).

But they printed it — as they should have — and it never occurred to me to ask that it not be run. Since they care about ethics around here, I like to think that if I had so asked, I would have been told to go pound sand. This paper gets — and prints — vast amounts of mail ripping me a new you-know-what, and I’ve never objected to any of it, except in the rare cases when those letters contain obvious errors of fact.

Standards are much different at the Detroit Free Press, as everyone in town who keeps up with newspaper gossip now knows. Those who don’t know about the ethical flap involving Mitch Albom can be pardoned; many of them have real lives. Though the media often doesn’t realize it, most people aren’t very interested in what goes on behind the scenes in the news business, any more than they care about how sausage is made.

This case is, however, significant, because it shows what the daily newspapers in this town really are — namely, first and foremost profit centers for two vast corporations.

Here is what happened: Mitch Albom long ago became something more than a sports columnist, and was transformed into that species known as Celebrity, first locally, then nationally. He wrote a best-selling book called Tuesdays With Morrie.

I have never met Mitch Albom, and while I like his sports coverage, I have never read his books. A friend of mine, the late best-selling author Bill Dufty, read Morrie while he was in the hospital, and advised me I’d be better off reading Aimee Semple McPherson.

So I never did, but millions loved it, and it later became a made-for-TV movie. But instead of then romping off to a bigger stage in New York or Los Angeles, as you might expect, Albom elected to stay here. He continued doing highly readable sports coverage, his not-quite-so-good general interest column, and added a local daily radio show, which is sort of mediocre-minus.

Mainly, Albom became a marketable brand for the Free Press, something like a popular recreational vehicle. When the newspaper strike began he stayed out a while, and then dramatically scooted across the picket line.

Now he has written a new book: The Five People You Meet In Heaven, and just as DaimlerChrysler might hire an ad agency to promote a new car, the DetroitFreePress commissioned a book review of Mitch’s latest book. But unfortunately for the marketing department, the reviewer, Carlo Wolff, a highly regarded Cleveland writer, was honest.

“How many ways can you define superficial?” it began.

While noting that Albom has writing talent, the review — which is not mean-spirited or nasty — says he squanders it. “Where some attempt to write the Great American Novel, Albom seems content to write the Great American Postcard.”

According to my sources, Mitch either demanded or was allowed to see a copy of the review before it was published, and had some type of hissy fit. So Carole Leigh Hutton, best known as the paper’s first-ever female executive editor, killed the review. Hutton said in an interview on Monday that Albom did not demand that the review be spiked; in fact, she said she was not certain whether he had even read Wolff’s review prior to her decision to suppress it. (Metro Times printed Wolff’s review in last week’s edition.)

There was enough internal dissension that she felt compelled to write a column justifying her decision. It reminded me very much of a communiqué I once read from the Soviet politburo, justifying the invasion of Hungary. “In the end, it came down to a decision about how I want the Free Press to treat its employees,” said she.

To many former strikers, that must have seemed screamingly funny. Hutton’s column, which ran Oct. 5, contradicted itself, made little sense, and meandered all over the place. Frankly, the Freep would have been better off had someone (Hello, Heath? Hello?) killed Hutton’s column, or if the Freep politburo had realized Henry Ford II’s motto, “Never complain, never explain,” is sometimes the best policy.

What might have been an even better idea would have been to try the revolutionary idea of telling the truth. The fact of the matter is that ol’ Mitch could easily find a job elsewhere, or so the Freep fears, and not only would that have been embarrassing, he is virtually the only marquee name the paper has left to promote.

That wouldn’t make what they did ethical by journalistic standards, but you can respect a business decision. So next time Mitch writes, budget for a house ad.


But can we vote standing on our heads? The latest techno-flap engulfing the Democrats is whether or not to allow Internet voting in Michigan’s Feb. 7 caucuses. All of the candidates except Howard Dean and Wesley Clark oppose it.

Personally, I think Dean and Clark are the strongest of the lot. But I have to side with the others here. This summer, a virus caused my computer to send thousands of virus-laden e-mails to people under my screen name.

The security isn’t there yet. The real story, however, is the Democrats’ continuing attempt to prevent most people from voting, while pretending otherwise. To replace an open primary with a closed caucus is as anti-democratic as I can imagine. Clearly, the party hacks are afraid of the same voters they mean to woo in November. Not exactly the kind of message to send when you are trying to beat George Bush and John Ashcroft.

Read last week's SCREED column - "Free press for Mitch."

Read the review the Freep wouldn't print. Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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