Friday, April 08, 2005

Pressing Matters

Saturday Nights Without Mateen and Jason

Mitch Albom, the best selling author and sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press, apologized on Thursday for fabricating portions of a column he wrote last week-- sort of.

Albom admitted that a column he wrote and published in the Free Press last Sunday about a Michigan State basketball game the previous Saturday night-- describing comments supposedly made during the game by two NBA players who once played for Michigan State--was written the night before the game was even played. When the players failed to actually show for the game, canceling plans they had to attend, the episode became a public controversy. Albom had indeed interviewed the two players, but over the telephone, and days before the game.

In his column Albom wrote: "[B]oth [players] 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 jet. Cleaves, who's on his fourth team in five years, bought a ticket and flew commercial."

One of the players, Jason Richardson, has since said that he watched the game on television, all alone, thousands of miles away, at home in San Francisco. In his column, Albom wrote of the two players: "They sat in the stands, in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma matter." Whether Richardson was wearing his "MSU clothing" in his own living room is yet to be determined.

Albom ended the column this way: "You looked around the stands Saturday, and you realized the truth: that you never know how right they are until you're the one saying it." Obviously, he couldn't have done so, in that the game had yet to be played.

What is striking to me about the incident is how very differently the Free Press and its rival, the Detroit News, characterized what occurred.

The Detroit News wrote about the incident this way:

"Mitch Albom, a nationally known sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press, apologized Thursday for fabricating several details in a Sunday account about the NCAA basketball tournament.

"But the apology did little to diffuse an outpouring of scorn from readers, newspaper staffers, industry observers and people calling or writing to sports talk radio stations and Internet sites."

Many readers of the Free Press only felt further betrayed by the initial tepid response of the newspaper when Albom fessed up to what he had done. That is illustrated in the stark contrast between how the Free Press and the News have written about the incident.

In an open letter to readers of Free Press, Carole Leigh Hutton, the newspaper's Publisher and Editor, sugar coated Albom's transgression this way, writing:

"As a newspaper, our credibility is paramount.

"On Thursday, we reported a Mitch Albom column in Sunday's editions misled readers by saying two ex-Michigan State basketball players were at Saturday night's Final Four game.

"They were not. The column was written Friday, for a section that was printed before the game was played."

"Albom was wrong to report that the athletes were there when the game had not yet been played. And the Free Press was wrong to publish it.

"Albom has built an unparalleled reputation in 20 years as a Free Press columnist. Still, the Free Press is undertaking a thorough review of the situation, as is our policy."

Even more unfortunate was the conduct of Tribune Media Services, which syndicates Albom's column. According to this account in Editor & Publisher, TMS sent an advisory to its client newspapers about only what it termed as a mere "factual inaccuracy" in Albom's column.

But the most brazen sugar coating of what had occurred was by Albom himself, in a personal note to his readers, published in the Free Press. Albom wrote:

"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. [emphasis added]"

To hear Albom tell it, he engaged in nothing more serious than making some false assumptions. Hardly. And his note is itself confusing, perhaps purposefully so, by asserting that he assumed that "what [he] had been told" by the players "had indeed happened." Nobody obviously can assume something has happened until it actually does happen. Perhaps Albom just has a habitual problem differentiating the former and present tense.

Even later, Leigh Hutton, in speaking to the rival Detroit News, still couldn't bring herself to say just how horrible what her star columnist had done: "I'm furious we made such a ridiculous-- I don't even know what to call it-- furious we could put something in the paper that couldn't have happened [emphasis added]."

It is understandable that Leigh Hutton and the Free Press are reluctant to condemn their friend and colleague of twenty years. That is only human. It is more than possible that Mitch Albom is ordinarily a scrupulously ethical journalist, who has done just one very horrible thing. Leigh Hutton does not want to see a distinguished newspaper career end if this was a single episode. Albom's editors surely think that that is the case. David Robinson, a deputy managing editor of the Free Press, and who from 1985-1993 as the sports editor of the newspaper directly oversaw Albom's work, told E & P: "He [Albom] does his homework and talks to people. He's a good person who made a big mistake and owned up to it." Until evidence surfaces to the contrary that this was anything other than single incident-- and not a more distressing pattern of conduct-- Albom should at least be given the benefit of the doubt that he is not a recidivist.

But in this post Jayson Blair/Stephen Glass/Rathergate era, media organizations-- most importantly newspapers-- can no longer appear to look the other way when it comes to ethical transgressions. The public rightfully demands greater accountability.

In the meantime, the Free Press, has announced that its assistant managing editor for investigative reporting and a group of reporters will conduct an investigation of the Albom matter.

It is unclear whether the newspaper will investigate the single incident, or a more broad body of work by Albom. Leigh Hutton's public comments lend the impression that plans are now just to investigate the one column. (I have placed calls to Leigh Hutton, and John X. Miller, the public editor of the Free Press, to ask one or both of them about this. But both have so far been unavailable. When and if I do hear back, I will update this post as to what they had to say.)

The Free Press not only has an obligation to its readers, but also ironically, to Albom, to review a more broad range of Albom's work. If this was a single time incident, then even Albom himself would be well served by being able to reassure his readers that a comprehensive investigation determined that that was the case. Otherwise, suspicions will endlessly persist not just about him, but the Free Press as well. And the paper's initial parsing of words as to the seriousness of his transgression only further underscores that a thorough investigation is necessary to now reassure their readers. It should be standard conduct for news organizations to conduct a thorough investigation of a journalist's work if a serious ethical ethical infraction is discovered. Not to do otherwise only undercuts their credibility.

Two newspapers have already learned the lesson this the hard way. The Boston Globe admitted to misconduct by columnist Mike Barnicle-- only to be further embarrassed by later, more serious revelations of outright fabrication. (The Globe subsequently fired Barnicle.) USA Today originally told its readers that its former reporter Jack Kelley, had cut some ethical corners, but could not out right prove that he fabricated stories, after it had completed what it represented as an exhaustive review of the matter. Months later, the newspaper had to admit-- after a more thorough probe was conducted by an outside group of investigators-- that Kelley had fabricated stories and engaged in plagiarism on more than two dozen times over a decade; that senior editors of USA Today had turned a blind eye to recurrent credible complaints regarding his work; and reporters who had long suspected his fabrications were "intimidated" from speaking out.

In a letter to the Poynter Institute's Romenesko website, Eric Deggans, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times had to this say of the Albom controversy:

"Certainly, every editor at the newspaper [Free Press] had to know Albom's column was bogus. But they only admitted it when the players failed to attend the game and shattered their charade... [G]iven the circumstances, Albom isn't the only journalist at the Free Press who lied to readers to make this column happen.

"To save the newspaper's credibility, there needs to be more punishment for Albom and his enablers than an embarrassing correction and mea culpa column."

It is perhaps unfair to allege that "every editor" at the newspaper knew, but the column was obviously turned in and edited before the basketball game occurred. The more important issue, however, than whatever punishment is meted out, and to whom, is whether or not the newspaper will provide its readers with nothing less than a through and complete accounting as to what transpired.

Update, 9:43 P.M, April 9: John X. Miller, the public editor of the Free Press called late tonight to say that his newspaper is going to conduct a more broad review of Albom's past work than has been reported. What exactly that will entail, he told me, has yet to be determined: "We are going to look at more than the single column... We are going to examine others by him. We are still deciding which ones, of course. But the investigation will be broader than just that one." Albom also will not write his column for the newspaper while the investigation is underway, Miller said.

Update, 5:37 P.M., April 10: Miller, the public editor of the Free Press, says tonight that the investigation being conducted by his newspaper will also encompass which editors at the newspaper knew in advance that Albom wrote about a basketball game that had not been yet been played. He told me: "We have now decided to examine the editing the process as well. We will focus on this particular instance... whose hands the copy went through." According to Miller, "Ordinarily his column would have at least gone by the copy desk... and then have been looked at by other editors" as well. But for now, he says, he cannot speak to any more specifics.

Update 10:52 P.M, April 10: The Free Press continues to exacerbate Albom's horrible act by still continuing to sugar coat what he did. As I have written above, it would unfair for there to be a rush to judgment that Albom has has committed similar transgressions, without further evidence. But to continue to characterize what he has done as a mere mistake of judgment only will harm the newspaper's long term credibility. The fact is that Albom fabricated details of his column, something the Free Press' editor has yet to acknowledge.

Initially, John X. Miller, the Free Press' public editor declined to characterize Albom's transgression as a "fabrication", variously describing it to me as "bad judgment", an"error", and "multidimensional error."

Only in a subsequent conversation did Miller somewhat reluctantly tell me: "From my estimation of it, it was indeed a fabrication." Miller has also since told the Chicago Tribune: "It's not viewed as a minor infraction because in the minds of the editors, it was a fabrication."

As long overdue as those statements have been, another senior newsroom source at the Free Press has told me that the newspaper's editor, Carole Leigh Hutton, has not been too happy with statements strongly condemning Albom. One long time veteran of the newspaper told me: "She is still not getting this." Leigh Hutton herself has publicly only described the incident as a "ridiculous" mistake. The failure of a stronger public judgment as to what Albom did-- even if this was just one act-- has begun to harm not only her newspaper, but ironically, now even Albom, the person she is trying to protect. Not only has her tepid response created a backlash among many reporters in her own newsroom, but also in the larger journalistic community, as is evidenced by the emails and letters posted by newspaper professionals from across the country, on Poynter's Jim Romenesko website.

Perhaps the seriousness of the situation might finally be driven home for her in considering the comments of Randy Harvey, the Baltimore Sun's assistant managing editor for sports: "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."

No comments: