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The Mitch Albom Scandal: Much Ado About Nothing

Experts are now saying that legendary sportswriter and author Mitch Albom is likely to be fired as a result of a recent scandal involving “fabrication” of the news. That would be a travesty.

No one’s defending renowned journalist (Chicago Tribune)

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.”

[...]

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.”

[...]

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.”

I’ve followed Albom’s work for years, mostly owing to his appearance as a regular on ESPN’s Sports Reporters. He was widely considered one of the very best at his craft, winning numerous awards even before his success as a novelist.

When this story broke last week, I was puzzled as to what the big deal was. Frankly, I still am.

Here’s the controversial column:

Longing for another slice of dorm pizza (April 1, Detroit Free Press)

In the audience Saturday at the Final Four, among the 46,000 hoop junkies, sales executives, movie producers, parents, contest winners, beer guzzlers, hip-hop stars and lucky locals who knew somebody who knew somebody, there were two former stars for Michigan State, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson.

They sat in the stands, in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma mater. They were teammates in the magical 2000 season, when the Spartans won it all. Both now play in the NBA, Richardson for Golden State, Cleaves for Seattle.

And both made it a point to fly in from wherever they were in their professional schedule just to sit together Saturday. Richardson, who earns millions, flew by private plane. Cleaves, who’s on his fourth team in five years, bought a ticket and flew commercial.

It was loyalty, sure. And it was exciting, no doubt. But in talking to both players, it was more than that. It was a chance to do something almost all of us would love to do: recapture, for a few hours, the best time of their lives.

“In the pros, you don’t hang out with your teammates; everybody has their own life, their wife or their kids or their girlfriends,” Richardson said. “And anyhow, you’re together on the plane, at the arena, on the bus, 82 games a season. When you have time, you’re just looking to get away.”

“You gotta miss those college days,” Cleaves said. “We were a family at Michigan State. In the NBA, you’re just not as close.”

THE TIMES OF A LIFETIME

When athletes talk about leaving college early, I always wish they would forget for a moment the financial gains or their draft lottery position. I wish they would think about the fun.

I’m not talking about the fun of seeing yourself on “SportsCenter.” You can do that in the pros, too. I’m talking about the fun you take for granted as a 19-year-old because you’ve never known anything else. I’m talking about plopping on the dorm couch and laughing about nothing, or squeezing in an old car and making dumb jokes about how your buddies smell, or sharing a sub sandwich at 3 in the morning, or putting your speakers out the window of your room, or hanging in the cafeteria for hours on end as the table changes characters, some coming, some going, all friends.

“In the pros, it’s funny, you got all these nice houses and nice cars,” Cleaves said, “as opposed to when you were kids riding bikes, staying over each others’ places, going half on a pizza. Remember when you had to borrow $2 from the next-door neighbor just to have enough to get it, you know?”

He laughed, and the laughter alone is exactly what I’m talking about.

LEAVING SCHOOL TOO SOON

Richardson admitted that when he watches his old school play, and he hears the school band and the cheerleaders screaming, “You want to put your old jersey on and get some of your eligibility back.”

The irony, of course, is that so many players give it away. Richardson did. He left after his sophomore season. And, like most high draft picks, he went to a lousy team. Nobody is happy when you lose. The game became a job. Sure, it paid well. But Richardson never seemed as wealthy as when he called his old schoolmates and told them the things he now was able to buy.

There’s a lesson there. If it isn’t rich unless you share it, maybe it’s the sharing that’s rich.

You can do that in college, every day, share life in a way that becomes impossible once you graduate to separate homes and private lives. How many of us wouldn’t trade a year’s worth of professional accomplishment for one more year of sharing dorm pizzas?

I remember, as a kid, some older relatives offering this advice: “Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up. It’s not as great as you think.”

You looked around the stands Saturday, and you realized the truth: that you never know how right they are until you’re the one saying it.

Now, clearly, the story’s lede was erroneous. Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson were not in the stands, decked out in the college apparel or otherwise. But the story was otherwise right. The story wasn’t about Cleaves and Richardson’s reactions to the game in question but rather their wistfulness of no longer being part of it. Albom fully expected that they would be there. It in no way harmed Cleaves’ and Richardson’s reputations saying that they were there. This is an error in doing follow-up fact checking and being a bit cutesy with a hook. This isn’t “fabrication.”

Albom apologized for the error when the facts became known:

MITCH ALBOM: I owe you an apology for Sunday’s column: Here it is (April 7, Detroit Free Press)

To our readers: I made an assumption in a column this past weekend. It was a bad move. In a column written Friday for our Sunday newspaper, I assumed that what I had been told by Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson had indeed happened, that they had indeed flown to the Final Four, sat in the stands together rooting on Michigan State in Saturday’s game. That was their plan. Both told me so in separate interviews. Because the column had to be filed on Friday afternoon, but appeared on Sunday, I wrote it in the past tense, as if it already had happened.

While it was hardly the thrust of the column — which was about nostalgia and college athletes — it was wrong just the same. You can’t write that something happened that didn’t, even if it’s just who sat in the stands. 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.

So I owe you and the Free Press an apology, and you have it right here. It wasn’t thorough journalism. While our deadlines would have required some weird writing — something like, “By the time you read this, if Mateen and Jason stuck to their plans, they would have sat in the stands for Saturday’s game” — it should have been done. We have high standards at this newspaper, and I have high standards for myself. We — the editors and I — got caught in an assumption that shouldn’t have happened. It won’t again. Thanks.

Carole Leigh Hutton, Publisher and Editor of the paper, followed up with a stern rebuke in the next day’s edition:

A QUESTION OF ETHICS: Columnist’s error being investigated (April 8)

Dear readers,

As a newspaper, our credibility is paramount.

On Thursday, we reported that a Mitch Albom column in Sunday’s editions misled readers by saying that two ex-Michigan State basketball players were at Saturday night’s Final Four game.

They were not. The column was written Friday, for a section that was printed before the game was played.

Albom was wrong to report that the athletes were there when the game had not yet been played. And the Free Press was wrong to publish it.

Albom has built an unparalleled reputation in 20 years as a Free Press columnist. Still, the Free Press is undertaking a thorough review of the situation, as is our policy.

We will report on that investigation just as we do with other investigations you read about in the Free Press.

The Free Press has an ethics policy that outlines our standards, as well as expectations for staff members. We thought it was important to make the policy publicly available when we updated it last year. You can find it at www.freep.com/help/ethics_policy.htm.

If you have concerns about any Free Press content, please bring them to the attention of Public Editor John X. Miller, who acts as the readers’ representative and reports directly to me. Miller can be reached at 313-222-2441 or 800-678-7771 anytime. You also can write to him at miller@freepress.com or at Detroit Free Press, 600 W. Fort, Detroit 48226.

I would point out that columns and even straight news stories are written ALL THE TIME as if the story had already happened. It’s not unusual to get a story from the wire services or major newspapers written several hours before, say, a presidential speech that already has the quotes (via advance copy) of what the president will say and, indeed, (via reactions to the advance copy) the reaction of Democratic opponents and Republican supporters. The obituaries of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II were floating around online days before they actually died. Writers on deadline write the strawman and fill in details on a routine basis.

What Albom did was not unethical, unprofessional, or unusual. His apology and public rebuke by his editor is far more than sufficient for his incredibly minor lapse in follow-up. Certainly, firing a man of his enormous professional stature for an offense so insignificant would be an outrage far greater than whatever offense he is supposed to have committed.

Update: The NYT has a related piece in their Business section today: Meeting a Deadline, Repenting at Leisure

For most reporters, deadline trouble means finishing their articles late. But Mitch Albom, author of the best-selling book “Tuesdays With Morrie” and a columnist for The Detroit Free Press, faced a different deadline problem with his April 3 column about the scene at the Michigan State-North Carolina game in the Final Four of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament.

Mr. Albom wrote the column – which described two former players for Michigan State, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson, attending the game – in the past tense but filed it before tip-off to meet the deadline of a Sunday section that had to be printed before the game. “They sat in the stands, in their M.S.U. clothing, and rooted on their alma mater,” Mr. Albom wrote.

Unfortunately, Mr. Cleaves and Mr. Richardson, who had told Mr. Albom they planned to attend, did not make it after all.

On Thursday, Tribune Media Services, the syndicate that distributes Mr. Albom’s column, sent its clients a warning that the April 3 column contained “a factual inaccuracy” and Mr. Albom apologized to readers. “I made an assumption in a column this past weekend,” he wrote. “It was a bad move.”

Mr. Albom was traveling Friday and could not be reached, his assistant said.

Irate letters from reporters, writers and editors also flowed to Romenesko, an online compendium of journalism news that is widely read by those in the news business.

Awkward deadlines, partly determined by printing logistics, often land during or even before relevant events. Sports reporters, for example, regularly have to decide how to cover games that will end after deadline. “There are plenty of timing challenges in health care, but we do not excuse physicians and nurses who cut corners,” said Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, operator of the Romenesko site.

One newspaper, The Duluth News-Tribune in Minnesota, which printed Mr. Albom’s column on April 2, before the game it purported to describe, edited it to make things right. Where Mr. Albom wrote, “They sat in the stands,” for example, The News-Tribune version read, “They will sit in the stands.”

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. t true.  Recently he has been slammed for falsely claiming to have interviewed Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson.  Truth be told, I have read so much on both sides I don’t really know how to think about it.  You could believe this

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  2. Mark says:

    Even this morning, Yahoo had the AP story up on how Democrats grilled John Bolton – and the hearing did not even begin yet.

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  3. Eric says:

    Tony Kornheiser has been consistantly defending Albom on his radio show. I’m with you – this was a journalistic misdemeanor. I think the calls for his head come from two sources – one, embarrassment that he got caught at the kind of thing that sportswriters do all the time, and two, jealousy over the millions and millions of dollars he’s made on his non-sports books.

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  4. ZuDfunck says:

    Mitch Albom Should Stay!
    Outside the Beltway’s James Joyner has a good summary and opinion on Mitch’s situation with the Freep: I would point out that columns and even straight news stories are written ALL THE TIME as if the story had already happened.

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  5. Albom: not that big a deal
    I’ve never been a fan of Mitch Albom’s. I find his holier-than-thou tone on the “Sports Reports” on ESPN to be about as grating as Tony Kornheiser’s odes to Elvis Costello. Still and all, he’s being grilled today for something that amounts to a l…

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  6. FredW says:

    I guess I would take a harder line — I don’t think he should be fired but I think a suspension is not out of order. Phrases like “Everybody does it”, “Nobody got hurt” and “It happens all the time” didn’t work for me as a teenager, I don’t think they should work here.

    I also have problem with this line…

    “Where is the line between making something up that you think will happen and simply making something up?”

    There is no line — a reporter should not make things up, period.

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  7. Boyd says:

    I agree. Journalistic misdemeanor.

    We should all give our thanks to Jason Blair and the others who have perpetrated real journalistic fraud, for fostering the atmosphere which engenders this kind of over-reaction.

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  8. Brian J. says:

    Is someone getting a little expensive for the DFP?

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  9. B Kowal says:

    Regarding Mitch Albom’s “minor lapse in follow-up”:
    Pre-quoting pre-arranged statements from political speeches—
    Premature releases of Obituaries—
    Those practices are debatable, but in one case, the politicians intend the pre-released words to get represented in print. In the other case, the internet is a notoriously leaky “waiting room” for press releases.

    These known shortcuts DID NOT give Mr. Albom license to elaborately fabricate first-person eye-witness accounts, filled with highly personalized detailed observations! Mr. Albom isn’t guilty of a “lapse in follow-up”. He concocted an elaborate lie, assuming the truth would become his unknowing accomplice.

    Consider these questions before calling Mr. Albom’s acts “minor”:
    Question #1, had events transpired in line with Mr. Albom’s “assumptions”, would the offending parties have revealed their transgressions?
    Its evident Mr. Albom was relying on this cooperative deception/cover-up scenario to meet his ends. Unlike details in his story, I doubt he wrote his (skillfully deflecting) apology ahead of time, before the exposure became imminent.
    Question #2, Given the answer to question #1, How many, other fabrications have Mr. Albom and Co. successfully passed off as truth?
    One?
    Ten?
    None?
    We’re asked to trust the Free Press’ investigation for this one.
    Question#3, Will you trust the Free Press’ findings? The Genie is now out of the bottle. From now on, as long as they share an association, the credibility of all parties involved; Mr. Albom, his editor(s), and the Free Press, will be in question.

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  10. kilgore trout says:

    I’m with you, James, I don’t understand the hysteria about Albom at all. Just today, AP reporter Barry Schweid filed a report headlined “Democrats Grill U.N. Nominee John Bolton” hours before the hearing began. Where’s the outrage? Shouldn’t we be more upset about news reporters filing stories before they happen then sports reporters? Evidently, someone with power has it out for Albom. Most of us who follow media know the press sometimes file stories ahead of time. What’s the deal here?

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  11. DBD says:

    As a newspaper editor and former employee of the Free Press, what’s most disturbing to me is that people just accept that what Albom did is not unusual. Yes, stories about the State of the Union are moved by the wire services in advance, using advance copies of the speech, so that newspapers can meet early deadlines. But the newspapers that print them wait until the speech has at least begun before they allow the stories to get into print and those stories don’t tell readers what the prsident wore or who he shook hands with as he walked in.

    What Albom did was write a column about an event that happened Saturday for a section that was printed Friday for insertion into the Sunday newspaper. He used very specific details about what happened in an attempt to make readers think he was there, witnessing it. Whether the players showed up or not is irrelevant because he wrote it as if it had happened. That is wrong. Plain and simple.

    Newspapers have enough problems with credibility without arguably the most well-known columnist in America taking liberties with the truth.

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  12. High standards of journalistic integrity
    Well, for sportswriters anyway. Sheesh, if these sorts of rigorous standards were applied to editorialists, most of the opinion pages of major dailies would be blank sheets….

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  13. denise says:

    I don’t have a problem with Albom writing in advance what he expects to happen, especially since his expectations were based on interviews with the story’s key figures.

    I do have a problem with the paper printing it in advance based on those same expectations. That is a situation that should be stopped immediately. Seems to me if someone should be slapped around, it’s the editors that let it go to print, rather than wait for the event to happen and the story to be verified.

    This whole story is pretty trivial, and as stated earlier, the fabricated portions were just the appetizer, not the main course of the story itself. If a newspaper’s credibility hangs on such a story, that proves that either (1) the paper is at the end of its credibility rope anyway or (2) people take their sports-human-interest stories more seriously than they should.

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  14. DBD says:

    The editors who have coddled him and excused his behavior for years are most to blame for allowing it to get into print. My guess is that a lower-level copy editor red flagged it but a higher-up allowed it to get through.

    But you can’t forgive fabrication just because it wasn’t the central point of the column. If one thing is made up for expediency’s sake, how can you trust any of what he writes?

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  15. JEG says:

    It’s not what he wrote that is so bad, it’s that he is usually so pompous about other writers’ foibles. He totally trashed Jayson Blair for what he did, deservedly so. He continually trashes Matt Drudge for printing rumor and innuendo. Apparently he feels that the high journalistic standards he espouses don’t actually apply to him.

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  16. More on Mitch
    I realize his mistake was unethical, but I have trouble listening to people suggest it’s on the same level of Jayson Blair, let alone worse. Is that just because I’m admittedly biased and perhaps a little naive? I’m not sure, but I hope not.

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  17. c zawacki says:

    Credibility is a basic journalistic premise which Mitch carped about on his show. Maybe Mitch should consider “fiction” more his fortay.

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  18. Art Rose says:

    There ARE different rules for Mitch, clearly, and The FREEP. They want to be covered like athletes and politicians were back in the day. No indiscretions reported, the story is way more important than the truth. The disdain of Albom and his editors and publisher for the reader is unbounded.

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  19. Starfishin says:

    Let’s get a few things strasight:
    “Now, clearly, the story’s lede was erroneous.”

    No. The story’s lede was a fabrication.

    “But the story was otherwise right.”

    No, it was not. The story contained many errors of fact,as well as the fabrication.

    “I would point out that columns and even straight news stories are written ALL THE TIME as if the story had already happened.”

    Not true.

    “It’s not unusual to get a story from the wire services or major newspapers written several hours before, say, a presidential speech that already has the quotes (via advance copy) of what the president will say”

    True. But the story is EMBARGOED, which means that the story should not be printed until the advanced event actually takes place, and the information in the story is verifed (did the president deliver a different speech? Did he get food poisoning and cancel the speech?)

    “What Albom did was not unethical, unprofessional, or unusual.”

    Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Not only was he in violation of general journalistic standards, but he violated the published standards of his own newspaper.

    “Certainly, firing a man of his enormous professional stature for an offense so insignificant would be an outrage far greater than whatever offense he is supposed to have committed.”

    So ethical behavior is now determined by a popularity contest? Albom’s “offense so insignificant” was fabrication. Otherwise known as lying.

    I don’t know how things work in your line of work, but in mine it’s a fireable offense. As it should be.

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  20. DWG says:

    Amazing thing about this is that it all could have been avoided without materially affecting the column. If he had said the two former players “plan to be there,” “intend to be in the stands,” etc., the thrust of the column would not have changed a bit. This is not Jayson Blair or Janet
    Cooke. But journalistic organizations loooooooove to flagellate, so mere mea culpas just won’t do the trick. I think Albom’s embarrassment is punishment enough.

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  21. Paul says:

    In my opinion, this is the journalistic equivalent of Sammy Sosa’s corked bat. The two events are also linked by their symbolism. I remember the incredible explosion of wood (and cork) when Sosa’s bat shattered and his complete lack of accountability after the fact. I’ve read a few accounts of the benefit of using a corked bat and the opinions are mixed. Any advantage appears to be negligable.

    Albom’s fabrication of the events is similar in the fact that his story wouldn’t have lost much, if any, luster if he had written that the former MSU players planned to attend or wished to attend that game (as pointed out previously in this forum). Unfortunately, his reputation has gone the way of Sosa’s corked bat. His apology was, to be kind, calculated. It was as though he was thinking what would be the acceptable minimum in the form of an apology. Americans are very forgiving people if one is forthcoming with a sincere apology. Covering those who participate in athletics, Mitch should know that as well as anyone.

    There’s one more link between the two. Both central figures want us to believe this was the first occasion of such a trangression. How are we supposed to believe in someone’s credibility immediately after witnessing them get caught doing something with such utter disregard for their respective crafts?

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