Suspended Albom criticized for fabrication in his column

Free Press investigating acclaimed writer, author

Media

April 10, 2005|By Michael Hirsley | Michael Hirsley,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 last week, one no journalist wants.

Albom is making news rather than reporting it, under suspension from the Detroit Free Press until the paper completes an investigation of a fabrication in a column by Albom 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 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.

Said Karen Brown Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute, a think tank for professional journalists: "I think it's very sad, very serious and very disappointing. 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 men's basketball tournament Final Four game April 2 in St. Louis. In earlier interviews, former Michigan State players Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves told Albom they were planning to attend the game, but they did not.

Filing on Friday in advance of the Saturday game 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. But schedule conflicts kept both players from attending the game.

"It's not viewed as a minor infraction," Free Press public editor John X. Miller said of the column gaffe, "because in the minds of the editors, it was a fabrication.

"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," Miller 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 pre-print 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, well before the game.

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 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."

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.

In 2003, Albom wrote a scathing column about Blair's book-deal ambition and lack of contrition after his downfall.

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