Fame shouldn't protect writers who fabricate

April 17, 2005|By Paul Moore

THESE ARE demanding days for John X. Miller of the Detroit Free Press.

Miller is the newspaper's public editor and has been hearing from hundreds of readers about a case of fabrication by Mitch Albom, the highly regarded Free Press sports columnist. Albom is nationally known for his columns, radio and TV work and also is the best-selling author of Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven.

Albom is the franchise player at The Detroit Free Press. It appears that he has become such a celebrity that his work has become virtually untouchable. Stars such as Albom are as essential to a newspaper's bottom line as they are to the sports section.

In 2003, then-Executive Editor Carole Leigh Hutton killed a commissioned review of Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven because the review was critical of the book. "Somehow using him to sell newspapers one day and publishing something hurtful the next day felt dishonest and hypocritical," she said at the time. Her decision was widely criticized inside and outside the Free Press.

These days Miller is handling a multitude of responses about Albom's column of Sunday April 3, which described two former Michigan State and current NBA basketball players attending the NCAA semifinal game the previous night between MSU and the University of North Carolina. Neither player actually attended the game.

The column was based on interviews before the game in which the two players told Albom they planned to arrive by plane for the game. Because of scheduling conflicts, they did not. The column was produced on Friday for a Sunday advance section but was written in the past tense: "They sat in the stands, in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma mater," Albom said.

Despite Albom's published apology, Hutton - now the newspaper's publisher and editor - ordered an investigation. "As a newspaper, our credibility is paramount," Hutton wrote in a front-page article. Albom's work will not appear in the Free Press during the inquiry.

Miller said: "Even though some readers think this is much ado about nothing, I'm trying to explain why this is so fundamentally important. More than being factually wrong, this was something reported that did not happen. We take this very seriously."

That Albom could lose his job illustrates a significant trend in journalism. In this skeptical new era, readers and editors have become much less forgiving of reporters and columnists who break or stretch the rules.

In this case, Albom is the quintessential multimedia star, trying to juggle obligations in print and broadcast.

However, this is not simply a case of an overextended journalist who made a bad decision. It also is a question of how editors at the Free Press could allow or justify publishing and providing for its wire service material that they knew was bogus.

Randy Harvey, The Sun's assistant managing editor for sports, said: "I admire Mitch as much as anyone I know who has been involved in our business. With his talents as novelist, musician and playwright, he is a true Renaissance sportswriter who has helped us counter the stereotypical `Oscar Madison' image."

Harvey is adamant, however, that Albom crossed a line. "Anyone who does that, especially in this day and age, when the media are scrutinized as never before, should lose his job. So should the editors who saw the column before it appeared and allowed it to be published."

Albom's apology, which ran before the investigation began, has been called insincere, half-hearted and self-serving.

Sun Reader Will Shoken wondered about the difference between the Albom incident and a situation involving The Sun's Michael Olesker. In an October 2004 column, Olesker described a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" at a hearing that Olesker did not attend.

Soon after that column appeared, Olesker apologized for his choice of words and for misleading some readers.

Despite Olesker's apology, Mr. Shoken still questions why Olesker was not disciplined by The Sun for what Shoken thinks was a lapse similar to Albom's. "Does the Baltimore Sun have lower ethical standards than the Detroit Free Press?" he asked.

The difference is a matter of intent. Olesker used a metaphor to describe something that had happened, which some readers took literally. Olesker said he did not intend to deceive readers and Sun editors believe him.

Albom's column anticipated a basketball game that had not yet been played and described a scene that intended to give readers the sense he had actually witnessed the event. In this case, the editors involved knew what he had written had not happened and yet did not stop it. They even sent it to the news service, where some member newspapers picked it up and posted it on their Web sites.

Whether it is The Sun, the Detroit Free Press or any other news organization, problems occur that require an institution to assess why things went wrong. How an institution resolves a particular problem will never satisfy everyone. But to ignore it is much worse.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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