Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, meet Mitch Albom
April 8, 2005 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Mitch Albom, one of the most decorated sports columnists ever and a best selling author, has been busted for fabricating information in his latest Detroit Free Press column. Albom has apologized, but this has set the sports journalism field abuzz, many happy to the star of the Freep squirm. The President of The National Society of Newspaper Columnists has called the column "bogus" and an "egregious ethical lapse." Others wonder why he wasn't suspended or fired, thinking his status as an author and TV / radio personality is allowing him special favors. The Freep has started an investigation and may look into previous articles. To top it all off, here's the pot calling the kettle black.
posted by bawanaal (34 comments total)

 
Mitch Albom's column in the Sunday section said NBA players Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson attended Saturday's Michigan State-North Carolina NCAA tournament basketball game. They did not.

When I read that I didn't think it was such a big deal until I read the article, which is almost entirely devoted to Cleaves and Richardson. Love all the quotes too. How friggin' embarrassing.
posted by j.p. Hung at 4:24 PM on April 8, 2005


...also, is there some reason these guys just didn't pull the article instead of having the disclaimer and still continuing to run the story? Freep looks almost as dumb as the columnist.
posted by j.p. Hung at 4:27 PM on April 8, 2005


Dumb, embarrassing, avoidable, but ultimately fairly harmless, I think.
posted by notmydesk at 4:32 PM on April 8, 2005


In the days after Mitch Albom resigned in shame from the Detroit Free Press, everyone tried to reach him. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines, old friends, colleagues. He spoke to almost no one.

But he did call one person -- an agent named David Vigliano about a book and movie deal. Those deals are now in motion. And that's all you need to know about Mitch Albom.
*crosses fingers*
posted by felix betachat at 4:41 PM on April 8, 2005


I hate U.S. sports media. It's really difficult to be a sports fan and put up with the awful sports writers, commentators, and broadcasters. I'm not sure if the non-USian MeFites can understand just how bad it is.
posted by underer at 5:00 PM on April 8, 2005


Regular (and cynical) readers might see this as harmless, but it's a big deal. He fabricated information to create a story that didn't exist. That's a big deal.

Because it's just sports, people might say it's no big deal, but I can't see how he doesn't get fired, or at least severely reprimanded, i.e. suspended without pay. That's an egregious ethical error. I don't feel strongly about Albom one way or another, but as a Detroit native, I'm quite familiar with his work.

I'm not sure if the non-USian MeFites can understand just how bad it is.

I'm with you, underer, but I think London, Rome, and Madrid get more than their fair share of crap sportswriting and broadcasting as well. I admit I hate sportswriting, with a very few exceptions.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:03 PM on April 8, 2005


from the sportsjournalists thread:

Next book:

The Two People You Don't Meet In St. Louis


har.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:10 PM on April 8, 2005


Ach, you people are so straight laced. This happens all the time. I know of one reporter who got egg all over her face by filing and having printed a four-star review of a gig that she hadn't been to ... and neither had the performer, due to his untimely death. Heh.
posted by bonaldi at 5:11 PM on April 8, 2005


So I owe you and the Free Press an apology, and you have it right here.

No "sorry" or "I was wrong" (he says "it was wrong")? I feel like George Costanza. I want my Step 9!!

While it was hardly the thrust of the column

Hardly? The whole piece was about how players who leave college early often regret missing those years, as demonstrated by Cleaves and Richardson flying to St. Louis (commercial no less!). He should have rewritten.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:15 PM on April 8, 2005


I'm not sure if the non-USian MeFites can understand just how bad it is.

Don't forget about the USians that do not follow sports. I think that would be me and maybe one other guy.
posted by Bort at 5:29 PM on April 8, 2005


bonaldi: This happens all the time. I know of one reporter who got egg all over her face by filing and having printed a four-star review of a gig that she hadn't been to ... and neither had the performer, due to his untimely death.

Everyone does it, man. It's cooooool.
posted by billysumday at 5:41 PM on April 8, 2005


Yes, articles are sometimes written in advance to meet deadlines like the one he describes or when certain events or circumstances seem certain (see: Truman, Defeat Of). Yes, this one should have been yanked when it turned out the two players did not attend the game. I'd probably place a little more blame on his editor.

I don't see any real malice or intent to mislead here. He did actually interview the players, and then created a setting for the article. A lot of interview articles describe settings (Keanu took a thoughtful bite of his egg salad sandwich, his eyes scanning the crowded restaurant) that may or may not be exactly spot-on. Albom wrote about what he expected to happen; it didn't, so the story shouldn't have been run, but I don't think he needs to be fired. He apologized; that's plenty.
posted by notmydesk at 5:56 PM on April 8, 2005


He writes a great sports column, or at least he did when I was nine, I haven't read him in a while, but his stuff taught me a lot about baseball, in 1984. But maybe this was to be expected when he got into fiction. Kind of like a Raoul Duke thing without the Freak Power edge. <--that's a joke
posted by airguitar at 6:02 PM on April 8, 2005


> Regular (and cynical) readers might see this as harmless, but it's a big deal.
> He fabricated information to create a story that didn't exist. That's a big deal.

But it's just circuses for the masses, for goodness' sake. Pro sport itself is a fiction that doesn't exist--painted clowns and cardboard sets. Having a job writing about sports is like having a job making things up about Brad and Jen for the Enquirer. Why not demand that those people get fired too?
posted by jfuller at 6:10 PM on April 8, 2005


This is hardly Glass or Blair territory; it's just an example of the silly pressure to sound "immediate" that permeates daily news. Would the piece have been any worse if Albom had written it about the two players' *plan* to be at the game? Of course not. But he used the fudge for dramatic effect, which is a big warning signal. I won't be surprised if it turns out he's done it before; once you start down that road, it's hard to stop.

And claiming "it wasn't thorough journalism" is being a bit too kind. It's *bad* journalism - functionally equivalent to a lie. And you're right, mrgrimm, the lack of a simple "I'm sorry" is very telling. Why is it so obviously difficult for journalists to write those two simple words? It seems there's always a modification that distances the apology from the speaker in some slippery way. It's fucking hilarious how often newspaper people use that crap.

is there some reason these guys just didn't pull the article instead of having the disclaimer and still continuing to run the story? Freep looks almost as dumb as the columnist.

I disagree; it's much more honest and open for the paper to leave the column up with the correction. Most papers take the slimier route of making the offending bit disappear, which has always struck me as cowardly. Bravo to the Freep for having the guts to not hide the mistake. Now if they'd only teach their staff how to say "I'm sorry" in plain English.
posted by mediareport at 6:33 PM on April 8, 2005


I won't be surprised if it turns out he's done it before; once you start down that road, it's hard to stop

The Albom story has been a hot topic on the airwaves here in Detroit over the last 24 hours. Thing is, you have believe that this isn't the first time he has done this, just the first time he has been caught.

The sports writers that also do sports talk here (Detroit has 2 sports talk stations, so there's lots of air time to fill) have intimated that this has been a common occurence for Albom over the last serveral years. Not doing a Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass by making up stories, but "Embellishing" them with details that weren't verfied and are quite possibly fiction. According to what was said over the airwaves yesterday, when other writers have brought this up in the past, it was blamed on professional jealousy.

Albom hasn't been a newspaper sports writer per se in years, anyway. He only deigns to cover big sporting events anymore. 90% of his newspaper writing no longer has anything to do with sports. Normally his columns run on Sundays in an opinion section, not in sports.
posted by bawanaal at 6:43 PM on April 8, 2005


This column shouldn't have run, as it deliberately misleads readers into thinking Albom talked to the athletes at the event, not before. If he filed it Friday, the editor of the section should have called him on it and made him do a bit of a rewrite. A simple fix would have been "When I talked to athletes X and Y before the game..." Then when they didn't show up at the game, all the paper had to do was run a correction stating the athletes didn't actually attend the game. One fact of the column is corrected but the rest stands.

That said, in all the newsrooms I've worked in, the columnists tend to have a little more autonomy than regular writers. Often the editor knows the general subject the columnist is writing on but that's about it. They may not see the column before it goes to print.

I can see a scenario where the first person to handle the column was a Saturday night layout editor, who had no reason to doubt the column and simply dumped it on a page assuming the facts were correct -- which is what you have to do as a layout editor, unless you know something is absolutely wrong.

The editorial staff can take some blame here for allowing an untruthful column to slip through, but the real problem here lies with the columnist who wrote a deliberately misleading column. I don't know that it's a firing offence, but it's certainly worthy of a reprimand.
posted by showmethecalvino at 6:44 PM on April 8, 2005


he was misled by the people he interviewed ... they said they'd be there and weren't ... he should have been more careful ... but i don't think there was any intention to mislead his readers ...

i also think "i owe you an apology" ought to be plain enough english for anyone
posted by pyramid termite at 8:25 PM on April 8, 2005


Has Albom addressed this at all on his radio show? I've on occasions been unfortunate enough to hear his crappy show.
posted by gyc at 8:56 PM on April 8, 2005


Forget the ethical relativity of "everyone does it" or "it's just sports." Albom personally wrote a story -- purporting to be news, purporting to be true -- before the events in the story actually happened. The story was fake. Albom wrote and filed a fake story. Does this happen much more often than we know about? Sure. But that doesn't mean Albom isn't responsible for his actions.

This is a blacklistable offense, IMO. Let him go home and crank out more "inspirational" books for Oprah to turn into sweeps events. Journalism -- even sports reporting -- deserves better. The hypocrisy about Blair is just the icing.
posted by aaronetc at 8:58 PM on April 8, 2005


I may have missed a crucial point here, but if your interviewees say they are going to do something and fail to do it (and the paper's gone to press) what are you to do?

You can't follow around everyone you interview and make sure they really arrive at particular places.

The fact that they said they were going to attend the game, still supports the nostalgia theme of his story. The paper should've printed a retraction. Problem solved. (And a very insignificant one, at that.)
posted by Kloryne at 9:39 PM on April 8, 2005


My favorite Mitch quote on Jayson:

For all his talking last week, I never saw the words, "I'm sorry. What I did was terrible."

"I'm sorry." Why exactly didn't Mitch use those two simple words, pyramid termite? Because they're sharp and hard, and he didn't like getting that sharp and hard with himself. End of *that* particular part of this story. But I do love this:

What [Blair] doesn't get is that journalism is not Hollywood. It's not about closing the deal. It's not about face time. It's about -- simply put -- telling the truth.

Oh, the sanctimony.
posted by mediareport at 9:45 PM on April 8, 2005


he was misled by the people he interviewed

Um, no. The Freep's correction notes the players' plans "changed because of scheduling conflicts." There's a reason the head of the national newspaper columnist society called it an "egregious ethical lapse" on Albom's part; it's bad journalism to write up future events in the past tense as if they've already occurred. Deadline pressure doesn't erase that.

if your interviewees say they are going to do something and fail to do it (and the paper's gone to press) what are you to do?

Print only what you know is true: "Person X is planning on being at the game." If you print, "Person X was at the game, cheering" because you *expected* that to have been the case, you're not doing journalism. Mitch knows this. Anybody who's ever done journalism knows this.
posted by mediareport at 10:03 PM on April 8, 2005


i don't think there was any intention to mislead his readers

Here's another quote from the column:

"You looked around the stands Saturday, and you realized...."

He wrote that on Friday.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:27 PM on April 8, 2005


And let's not even get into his icky use of the second person.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:29 PM on April 8, 2005


"I'm sorry." Why exactly didn't Mitch use those two simple words, pyramid termite?

because he thought "i owe you an apology" was equivalent ... at least for any reader with more than a 3rd grade education

if you're going to be that damn picky about how he writes an obviously sincere and unevasive apology, maybe you should apply for a job as his editor

come on, guys, there must be some kind of outrage in the bush administration going on today that you could get your knives out for ... this is pretty small potatoes ...
posted by pyramid termite at 11:41 PM on April 8, 2005


Lots of fun letters at Romenesko, including some amusing stories of how others learned the do-not-prognosticate-your-ass-will-get-bitten lesson.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:00 AM on April 9, 2005


I am surprised at all the venom directed at Albom. He is, after all, an entertainment writer. I have no expectation that entertainment writers are entirely factual--in any media. When a writer describes an apartment or hotel room and what the star was wearing (or not) I always assume that the publicist had some spin applied. Sorta like Karl Rove, only with much less significance for the price of sand in the Gobi.

Albom has evolved into a glib hack, a parody of the sportswriter/infopinion writer. He's turned into a glittering object, a globetrotting spundit (sports-based pundit). His "crime" in no way equates with the systematic, pervasive, intentional fraud of Glass or Blair--their crime was lying to climb the pyramid to get where Albom is; his crime is being lazy and self-satisfied. He'll fall of his own irrelevance.

But to get worked up about him? Hell, the Freep lost all of its relevance when it caved to the JOA. I almost never read or buy it anymore--I have no fish to wrap and don't own a bird. Two thirds of any "news" in there comes from the wire services.

I can surmise, though, that those who really really hate Albom must have read/watched "Tuesdays with Morrie and the other Four People You will Spend the Rest of Eternity With in Hell." Don't you people realize that if he gets canned from the Freep and "The Sportswriters" (on ESPN for the US or NonUSian who could give a shit [why are you still reading this?]), he will be forced to kill more trees with his treacly prose?
posted by beelzbubba at 6:14 AM on April 9, 2005


Plus which, if he finds out about these threads at MeFi and others, he and Ken Brown will have more fodder for their nationally syndicated radio show? (which I don't think is too bad of a show, considering the other syndicated shows on his base station are Limbaugh, Hannity, and Schlesinger)
posted by beelzbubba at 6:16 AM on April 9, 2005


Fuck. Fuck. beelzbubba's right. Let him keep his job, for the love of God!

It isn't just that the two guys he said were at the game weren't there. It's that the entire column is about him at the game watching those guys watch the game. The entire column. It was a complete and total fabrication, and there's no way he should be allowed to keep his job. Treacly prose be damned.
posted by graventy at 6:24 AM on April 9, 2005


Jesus. I hate Albom, and I work as a journalist. That said, his sin was venial, not mortal.
posted by klangklangston at 7:45 AM on April 9, 2005


Albom's a liar, plain and simple. If his paper wants to employ an admitted liar and fabricator then good on them. They should call his column 'Tuesdays with a Liar'.

/pants are now on fire
posted by haqspan at 8:21 AM on April 9, 2005


Gotta admit it doesn't make me sad to see him squirm. One of the ways you can divide up Detroiters is "Free Press or News?". I was always more of a Freep person (altho' have worked for/interacted with both as a freelance writer and PR person).
However, I've thought Albom was a bit of a smug smartass since the 1988 Winter Olympics. He made a homophobic comment about Brian Boitano, and only apologized after many complaints, with the excuse he'd been "tired" when he wrote it.
A few years later I read a column where ripped into an athlete who'd said something minor while in an exhausted, stressed-out state.
So I guess fatigue is only an excuse when you're Mitch. (And I can't imagine he's had any less a fatiguing schedule in recent years. As the E & P article states, Mr. Take-Time-to-Smell-the-Roses is way over-committed. )

This column reads like Mitch was speaking to the two guys while they sat in the stands. The quotes may be accurate, but the entire setting is a fabrication.

[derail]From the Freep note:
"We do not present as fact events that have not occurred."
Har. Except everything the Bush Admin spoonfeeds you.[/derail]
posted by NorthernLite at 9:12 AM on April 9, 2005


graventy: I guess my point was that I don't give a rat's ass what they do at the Freep with Albom. They ceased to be a news outlet years ago.

I will agree that the article as written is good enough grounds to fire him. I will also agree that if Albom prewrote the article based on events he fabricated, that he and his editor should be fired. What would have been the harm in presenting the apparently authentic interview outside the frame of the Final Four? The urge to pompositize (if that isn't a word, it should be) (I guess aggrandize would work) himself is inexcusable and does couse one to wonder if it was the first such time.

So, I don't think that we disagree at heart. I reflected and came to appreciate that the way he wrote the story is just as bad as Blair and Glass, and the difference of the degree to which they did it is something that as yet remains in specualtive territory for Albom.

I stand by my belief that they were young and stupid and he is old and lazy.
posted by beelzbubba at 1:09 PM on April 9, 2005


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