April 8, 2005
SchadenfreudeBy Matthew May
You may know the name Mitch Albom — incredibly successful author of sappy books for self—help section addicts, nationally syndicated radio host, cable sports television personality, and columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
Albom has also, in the last decade, become a hypocritical, condescending, arrogant jerk who has appointed himself an expert on all things, especially judging who practices the purest forms of journalistic ethics and who does not. In print and on the radio he has bashed the likes of Jayson Blair but thinks that known fabricator Seymour Hersh is a legend performing a public service for his Abu Grahib scribblings. Albom always argues that journalistic standards and ethics are paramount in his own work.
Well, well, well.
In his Sunday column this past week in the Free Press, Albom wrote typical pabulum about the greatest days of one's life are in college, and there are no friends like college buddies. He has written this column in various forms five or six times. To bolster his point, he led the piece with an attempt at plucking the heartstrings by pointing out that former Michigan State cagers Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves were in attendance in St. Louis on Saturday night to root for their school in the NCAA semifinals. Take a gander:
'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.'
There was just one problem (aside from the fact that Albom called them alumni — neither has a degree): neither of them attended the game. Albom made it up because he had to file this column on Friday night rather than Saturday. The Free Press runs the presses for the extra—big Sunday edition of the paper for more hours than an ordinary weekday, meaning deadline times for feature items are earlier.
In the Ethics Policy of the Detroit Free Press, the first core principle reads as follows:
'We do not mislead readers. We do not publish made—up material, such as false names, unless it is obvious to the reader, as in a column or illustration that is unmistakably satirical or fanciful. We quote people accurately. We don't imply that we have witnessed events we haven't seen or been in places we haven't been.'
Here is the 'apology' Albom wrote in Thursday's paper:
'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.'
First of all, the column was misleading beginning with the dateline, which read "St. Louis." Albom was not in St. Louis when the column was written, he was in Detroit. So right away that is a falsehood.
Albom talked to Cleaves and Richardson on his radio show last week. Both of them expressed the hope that they would make it, but if you listened to what they said there is no way you could say for sure that they would get there. They both talked about how their teams were playing each other on Sunday, and Albom never asked if their teams were just going to let them go merely because their school was in the Final Four.
At the start of his radio show Thursday, Albom discussed the matter (though took no calls), and basically defended himself as he did in his "apology." He blamed the deadline, taking the word of Cleaves and Richardson, and said he shouldn't have made the error. But he also was quick to dismiss the incident and say it was no big deal, and that there was a lot of talk about it from "people who don't like me."
In other words, making stuff up is okay for him. This is a man who routinely criticizes President George W. Bush for not 'admitting mistakes' in front of the press corps.
As many media and readers have pointed out, Albom has fabricated things out of thin air for his columns and books numerous times, and even some of Morrie Schwartz's family said that some of the anecdotes in Tuesdays With Morrie just never happened. He wrote a book about the Michigan basketball program and passed off folks like Chris Webber as poor college students with not enough money to get a combo meal at Long John Silver's, even though Webber had been forwarded nearly a quarter of a million dollars by a UM booster. Albom never mentioned this or never discovered it. Albom has traded on his overall success to pose as an all—knowing arbiter of the good and moral, and as an expert in all things media. If we had a dollar for every time he prefaces a point on his show with "Folks, I work in media so I know..." we would be as wealthy as he.
If he has a no—edit clause in his contract, good for him, but he shouldn't complain or gripe when it comes back on him. Who knows what his "punishment" should be — how papers mete that kind of thing out for incidents like this is a mystery. Perhaps the Free Press will 'review' his work and check for more fabrications. Maybe he'll be suspended. He should be — writers with little or no star power would probably be canned. But Albom has been spared before.
The paper is run, after all, by Carol Leigh Hutton, who killed a review the Free Press commissioned that was not particularly kind to Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Frankly, his work should have been under review for the last ten years. His sports columns have been truly awful — clich�d, stereotypical, and devoid of context that people who actually cover sports all the time would write in their sleep. His commentary columns are awful — he claimed, for instance, that poor Dan Rather was not to blame for the Air National Guard fraud since he was merely a newsreader.
The paper has reaped what it has sown, and another crack in the edifice of mainstream media has been discovered. Another star is falling. Albom is given all manner of leeway that no other writer in the history of the paper has had. He writes when he wants, what he wants, and goes to events when he wants and is able to leave the paper for months to pursue other projects. The Free Press has let Albom play fast and loose and get away with things few journalists ever could. In the end, though, it is delicious to think of the master of ethics, the lecturer on death and dying, and the moral leader of our time finally got caught in one of the deceptions he has passed off as the truth.