Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Everybody Loves Mitch -- well, maybe

Yesterday, the Detroit Free Press appeared to close the book on its investigation into Mitch Albom, with a large report that detailed its findings and determined Albom's now-infamous April 3 column was an aberration. He didn't escape completely unscathed, however. It seems Mitch has a bit of a problem with lifting quotes and properly attributing their sources. Here's a snippet from the article:

"... the inquiry found that Albom at times has used quotes from newspapers, TV programs or other publications without indicating that he did not gather the material himself, in violation of Free Press rules on crediting sources. In several instances, Albom did not credit quotes exclusively gathered by another media organization."

Depending on who you talk to, this ranges from nitpicking to a potentially serious breach of ethics. If Albom got a quote for a story from the Today show or another newspaper, should he say so? Some writers might say that leads to clunky, cumbersome prose. Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser (an admitted friend of Albom) said just as much on his radio show this morning. To me, it's straight out of Journalism 101 - if you did not directly acquire quotes or information in an article you wrote, you give credit to the source of that material. Hell, I even do that here on this blog. It's an extra four or five words: "he said on the Today show." If anything, it's a professional courtesy.

What's even worse is that Albom appears to have occasionally embellished quotes.

"At times, quotes cited by Albom were worded slightly differently from how they appeared elsewhere in the media, with the quotes seeming to be livelier in some cases. Asked about those quotes, Albom insisted the passages were 'essentially accurate.'"

How about that one, kids? "Essentially accurate." I might use a variation of that with the ladies. "C'mon, I'm essentially good-looking."

There are a few other questionable instances mentioned in the article, such as Albom writing about a Lions-Bears game he watched from home and taking quotes for a Tigers game from TV and radio interviews during the commercial breaks of his own radio show. Maybe that doesn't seem like a big deal to most people, especially when compared to what's happening at Newsweek . But I think it's a bit shady to portray yourself as having attended an event when you actually didn't. I can just imagine trying to justify that tactic to one of my journalism professors. Guess what grade I would've received for that assignment? Just because you're Mitch Albom doesn't mean the rules don't apply.

Free Press publisher and executive editor Carole Anne Hutton wrote a mea culpa today, explaining the paper's new system of checks and balances that should prevent this sort of thing - which apparently is running rampant among Free Press columnists - from happening again. But given her past history of coddling Albom, I wonder if she's more interested in just getting past this incident and hoping this all goes away quietly.

I'm not sure it will, though. One of the reporters who contributed to the Free Press investigation, David Zeman, is already disputing how the story was edited for the paper. According to this story in Editor & Publisher, Zeman thinks the article's headline - "Albom probe shows no pattern of deception" - is, well, deceptive.

"'I think some people may find a disconnect between what the headline says and what the story below lays out,' Zeman said...

[He] also contends that the investigation found that Albom more frequently used quotes without credit than did other columnists. 'I think it is unfair to give the impression that any of our columnists have been shown to be lifting quotes to the extent that Mitch has,' Zeman said. 'I would hate to see all of our columnists lumped in to the same group as Albom.'"

Hutton told the Detroit News that the story and headline were edited "to be more clear and more newsy."

Hmm... is this really the end of this story? I'm not necessarily saying Hutton will be fired eventually, but doesn't someone's head have to roll for this - especially given the current mistrustful climate the media finds itself in with the public? Check back to see if she has the same job a year from now. We know Mitch Albom will.