tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Mitch – How could you do that?!

The Mitch Albom situation has the journalism world abuzz. Albom is the Detroit Free Press sports columnist who wrote that two NBA players were in the audience of a Michigan State basketball game when, in fact, they weren’t. Albom turned the story in April 1, the game took place April 2, and the Free Press ran the story on April 3. Albom wrote the story based on interviews conducted days before the game. The guys said they planned to attend the game and Albom wrote about it as if they were actually there. Problem was, plans changed and they never made it.

Albom, of course, is not just any sportswriter. He is a multi-million dollar talent, the author of several books including the best sellers “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” He’s also a musician and a playwright. He has a radio program and is a frequent contributor to ESPN. I have had the opportunity to hear Albom speak on two occasions and I have to say he is the best speaker I have ever heard.

Albom has intrigued me for years, maybe because I have often toyed with the idea that I could be him. We are the same age and we both started out as sportswriters. We both have a wide range of interests, including theater and music. And we have both written books. We both have radio and TV experience. And, like me, I get the sense that Albom has a certain level of eschatological interest. Of course, Albom has juggled all these interests with much more success than I have; he is a superstar while almost no one has heard of me. But that’s okay; I’m glad I am me, and right now anyway, I’m glad I’m not him.

People wonder why he did it. Why did he say Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson were in the stands when they weren’t? Sure, Albom thought they were going to be there, but that’s not the same as actually being there. Was Albom so busy with everything he’s got going on that he made a sloppy mistake, or does he simply not care about the details? Speculation is rampant and I am not sure we will ever know the answer. It does seem like an experienced newspaper reporter should be able to handle his workload and deadlines sufficiently to get the basic facts right.

I am not saying that I have never made a mistake; of course, I have. Maybe the reason Albom’s situation has ruffled so many feathers is because he doesn’t really seem all that sorry; he doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of what he is doing. His April 7 apology tries to minimize what he did. He says the basketball players in question were “hardly the thrust of the column” and that getting it right “would have required some weird writing.” I know this much. If anyone is going to accept your apology, you have to really mean it. Albom doesn’t really seem as if he means it.

Ironically, the two times I heard Albom speak, he talked about forgiveness. “Don’t let a grudge come between you and someone else,” Albom said in an October 2002 speech I covered. “Even if you know you are 100 percent right and the other person is 100 percent wrong, just say you are wrong if that is what it takes to mend things up between you.” I think that is pretty good advice and maybe that is what Albom is going to have to do if he wants to mend things with his editors, readers and critics.

Maybe Albom’s editors need to do some soul searching as well. Where were they? Nothing appears in a big-time newspaper like the Detroit Free Press without editors scrutinizing the copy ahead of time. Why didn’t anyone say anything? Why didn’t any editor ask Albom what he was doing?

God bless Nikki Overfelt, the young copy editor at the Duluth News Tribune who caught the mistake and edited the copy to make it accurate in her newspaper. Internet lore has it that she was the only editor at the many newspapers that run Albom’s syndicated column, who caught the error. Every writer, no matter how accomplished, can benefit from a diligent editor.

The Free Press has suspended Albom while it reviews everything Albom has ever written to determine whether he has a pattern of fabrication in his work. I would be surprised if they discover that this is anything other than a one-time incident. Personally, I like Albom’s work and I suspect he will continue to turn out meaningful work most of the time for years to come.


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