Sunday, April 10, 2005

Fate-appointed: Mitch Albom goes way of Jayson Blair, and is only human >> Sports >>
No one's defending renowned journalist
Peers, educators critical of Detroit's Mitch Albom for reporting something that didn't happen

By Michael Hirsley, Tribune staff reporter.
Tribune staff reporter Ed Sherman and columnist Mike Downey contributed
Published April 10, 2005

Mitch Albom, one of Detroit's most prominent figures, is a one-man multimedia entity as a nationally known sports columnist, radio and TV personality, best-selling author and playwright. He added another role this week--one no journalist wants.

Albom is making news rather than reporting it, under suspension from the Detroit Free Press until the newspaper completes an investigation of a fabrication in an Albom column that ran last Sunday.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.

Randy Harvey, the Baltimore Sun's assistant managing editor for sports, admires Albom's talent, but expects him to lose his job over the incident."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 before it was published," Harvey said."I think it's very sad, very serious and very disappointing," said Karen Brown Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute, a think tank for professional journalists. "And this was done by a very fine writer with a great reputation and a lengthy career. This was not a new reporter in journalism."

What Albom did was write a column as if his two interview subjects were at the Michigan State-North Carolina NCAA tournament Final Four game in St. Louis on April 2. In earlier interviews, former Michigan State players Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves told Albom they planned to attend the game, but they did not.Filing on Friday for a section that was printed by Saturday morning, several hours before the game, Albom wrote, and copy editors did not change, that Richardson and Cleaves had flown in for the game and were in the stands wearing Michigan State clothing.The column emphasized how much Cleaves and Richardson missed their college experiences. It turned out schedule conflicts kept both players from attending the game."It's not viewed as a minor infraction because in the minds of the editors, it was a fabrication," Free Press public editor John X. Miller said of the column gaffe. "More than being factually wrong, this was something reported that did not happen."He said the investigation of the column will include "whose hands it traveled through" and might include looking at other columns. "Mitch is not the only one who is culpable," he said. Albom's copy is usually handled by the same few editors, unlike stories written by Free Press reporters, Miller said. He said he did not know precisely when the section featuring Albom's column was printed, along with other preprint sections that are part of the Free Press' contribution to a Sunday paper co-produced by the Detroit News. But Miller said the section was printed and "out of the newsroom's hands" by Saturday morning. Miller said he did not know how long the investigation would take, but that "Mitch Albom's work will not appear in the newspaper while the investigation is ongoing."

The Free Press printed an apology from Albom and a front-page letter from publisher and editor Carole Leigh Hutton promising an investigation. The Detroit News quoted Hutton as being "furious" at the "ridiculous" mistake. Loren Ghiglione, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, said the error "doesn't sound ethical to me. When professors at Medill read a student's story and find something in it is untrue, it gets an `F.' "But Ghiglione empathized with Albom. "A lot of us make mistakes under deadline pressure," he said. "I hope that we'll not decide that everybody needs to lose their job, or end their career, over a mistake."Rebecca Ann Lind, an associate professor of communication at University of Illinois-Chicago whose specialty is media ethics, said pressure to be "up to the minute" causes mistakes such as Albom's. If it continues, she said, "Where is the line between making something up that you think will happen and simply making something up?"John Feinstein, author of many sports books, including "A Season on the Brink," said he understood "how Mitch got trapped" after he talked to the players. "But you cannot write that something happened that hasn't happened yet. If a game is not over before deadline, and one team is ahead 8-2 in the seventh inning, you can't write they won."Don Wycliff, the Chicago Tribune's public editor, said writing copy in advance of an event is frequently done at newspapers, "but you always tell the desk to make sure it happens before they use it, and to `hold it until I tell you it's happened.'--"But what happened with the Albom column is different, Wycliff said. "I don't see how you can distinguish this from fabrication. . . . like Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley or Uli Schmetzer."High-profile ethical missteps including fabrications and plagiarism ended the careers of reporters Kelley at USA Today, Blair at the New York Times and Schmetzer at the Chicago Tribune.

[And what did Mitch say about Jayson Blair: OH, NO! Say it isn't so!! ALL OF MY ILLUSIONS ARE SHATTERED! ]

In 2003, Albom wrote a scathing column about Blair's book-deal ambition and lack of contrition after his downfall."What he doesn't get is that journalism is not Hollywood," Albom wrote. "It's not about closing the deal. It's not about face time. It's about--simply put--telling the truth." Newsday columnist Shaun Powell had a hard time excusing Albom. "All we have in this business is our credibility," he said. "That's it . . . When we violate that trust, when we turn it to fiction, it's inexcusable."If you make up something, the penalty should be harsh."Calling Albom a friend, Feinstein said, "I'd say the best thing he could do is say `mea culpa' over and over. Don't try to justify it any level."Albom appears to be taking that advice, up to a point. Calling in Friday afternoon to the Detroit radio talk show where he normally serves as host on WJR-AM 760, he apologized to his colleagues at the Free Press and said he realized "all I had to do was write the words, `were scheduled to. Jason and Mateen were scheduled to fly. Jason and Mateen were scheduled to be in the crowd,' and the whole rest of the column would have made sense."

Albom's renown has transcended journalism as the author of best-selling "Tuesdays With Morrie," "Five People You Meet in Heaven" and the play "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel." He said he had a "crazy day" on the Friday that he wrote the column, along with another column and a stint on the radio. As a result, he said, "I made a stupid shortcut that's, you know, a rookie journalism mistake."Coincidentally, his mistake was caught by a rookie copy editor. But Nikki Overfelt does not work at the Free Press. She is a sportswriter and copy editor at the Duluth News Tribune who graduated from the University of Kansas last year. The Minnesota newspaper ran Albom's column on Saturday and Overfelt noticed the problematic verb tenses saying that Cleaves and Richardson were at a game that hadn't yet been played."The story came across Friday night, and I felt that even if the tenses were changed, the column didn't lose its meaning," Overfelt said.So Overfelt's paper ran Albom's column saying the two players "will be" at the game and "will sit in the stands." Where Albom wrote that they "flew" to the game, the Duluth version said each "is flying" to the game."News Tribune executive editor Rob Karwath, a former associate managing editor at the Chicago Tribune, said, "What Nikki did was the logical thing to do. I'm pleased with what she did, given what I know about the situation." Just doing her job. But I still love all that Morrie told you. The pressure gets me in re-write every time.--K05.

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