Friday, April 08, 2005

The not-exactly-Live Albom?

As I've written before, Mitch Albom was my writing hero as a kid. I devoured every single column the man wrote for the Detroit Free Press. I've become disillusioned with him, however, as he focused more on TV and radio and his success with Tuesdays With Morrie turned him into more of a preacher than a writer, leading him to produe the truly awful The Five People You Meet in Heaven. In the meantime, he's treated the sports page like more of an obligation while writing columns that read like he mailed them in. (Susannah noted a great example of this last week at Pub of Knowledge.) It now appears he may have been doing just that.

Last Sunday, Albom wrote a column explaining how much two former Michigan State basketball players loved their school. Here's an excerpt:

"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."

Nice story, right? But there's a problem: Cleaves and Richardson weren't at the game. Albom actually wrote his column before Saturday night's MSU-Kentucky game and assumed they'd be in attendance.

Not the end of journalism as we know it, but certainly an embarrassing moment for one of the country's most famous sports columnists. Albom wrote a mea culpa in yesterday's Free Press, apologizing to both his readers and the newspaper for reporting something that didn't really happen. Consequently, the Free Press admitted its mistake in judgment in today's edition.

So is Mitch Albom the new Jayson Blair? (Here's more on Blair from Slate.) I don't think so - especially since Albom wrote a "lighter" piece about a sporting event. But if you're going to strictly interpret journalistic ethics, Albom did fabricate information and play loose with some facts. Right now, Albom's getting attacked in the forums at the Romenesko media blog. Unfortunately, I can't link to specific posts, so you might have to do some scrolling, but here are some highlights:

"This is an egregious ethical lapse. Prophesying the future should be clearly labeled as such. Columnists do not fabricate events or characters and pawn them off as truth. His sports column in question was not satire. Mitch Albom, a long time award winner and best-selling author, should understand these essential ethics better than most."

"Makes you wonder if it was really Tuesdays with Morrie. Maybe it was another day of the week that didn’t scan so well as a book title. Did he see Morrie at all? Or did they just plan on getting together? And what inspirational words would old Morrie say about this mess?"

"How many phony stories can a reporter write before he or she is fired? One? Two? At least five? Ten or more?"

"If Mitch Albom was going to tell us in advance who'd be at the game, what they were wearing and how they got there, he could've at least gone one more small step and told us what the score was gonna be. Woulda saved me some dough."

"Making stuff up is making stuff up, even if you're so sure that you'd bet the mortgage and your first-born that it's gonna happen. I believe if I did that and my name wasn't Mitch Albom, I'd be in some serious doody."

And in a letter to Romenesko, Eric Deggans - an Op-Ed columnist for the St. Petersburg Times - suggests the Free Press needs to punish Albom and his editors more harshly in order to save its credibility as a newspaper.

Wow. I think that's a bit harsh. Is my former idolization of Albom coloring my perception? Maybe, but I've said I don't think Albom is the writer he used to be, and unfortunately, I think this incident proves it. More than anything, Albom's guilty of lazy writing. (And his newspaper is guilty of letting him get away with it.) For someone who's produced some truly great work, this should be really embarrassing.