In an age when journalists aren't respected, the media star and Tuesdays with Morrie author was both sanctimonious and opportunistic. And now he's finally paying for it.
Here was a recent letter to Jim Romenesko's online media column regarding the Mitch Albom controversy: "Makes you wonder if it was really Tuesdays with Morrie. Maybe it was another day of the week that didn't scan so well as a book title. Did he see Morrie at all? Or did they just plan on getting together? And what inspirational words would old Morrie say about this mess?"
Each letter was less clever than the next. Each smugly and clumsily spoofed the title of Detroit Free Press super-columnist and multimedia kingpin Mitch Albom's two best-selling books — the aforementioned schmaltzy tome Tuesdays with Morrie and the equally saccharine The Five People You Meet in Heaven. (Another Romenesko respondent suggested Albom could now pen The Five People You Meet in Hell based on his experience as a supposed fabulist.)
Albom recently joined the pantheon of disgraced famous journalists, landing somewhere between plagiarist Mike Barnicle and spousal-abuse enthusiast Bob Ryan. His true misdeed: writing a successful column, growing greedy, and forgetting to alter the verb tense of an inconsequential paragraph. (Call him Johnny Really Early Deadline.)
The media ethicists currently galloping on their high horses would have us believe otherwise, claiming Albom committed the ultimate journalistic sin — purposefully placing falsehoods in a column. They should return to their glass houses and double-bolt the door.
The column in question reads like a post-1985 Bob Greene column — a banal, wistful piece about two professional athletes (in this case, the Golden State Warriors' Jason Richardson and Seattle SuperSonics' Mateen Cleaves) longing for their days at Michigan State. Because the column was intended for the Sunday paper, Albom sent it up the editorial chain the Friday before — standard operating procedure for most Sunday paper contributors. He spoke to Richardson and Cleaves prior to writing the column, and both detailed their travel plans to St. Louis for the Final Four game between MSU and North Carolina. Satisfied they were telling him the truth, Albom wrote the column, which many would read in the hours prior to the Saturday evening tip-off, as if Richardson and Cleaves were in the stands.
Of all the papers that syndicate Albom's column, only one changed his assumption. A rookie copy editor (treated as a heroine by the perpetually self-righteous Chicago Tribune — the paper that Greene used as an aphrodisiac) at the Duluth News-Tribune changed the verb tense of the opening paragraph so the sentence "They sat in the stands" read "They will sit in the stands."
Give her a Pulitzer because, unfortunately for Albom, Richardson and Cleaves did not attend the game. When the Free Press discovered this, they immediately suspended Albom. "[He] was wrong to report that the athletes were there when the game had not yet been played," Free Press Publisher and Editor Carole Leigh Hutton solemnly informed readers five days after the column ran. "And the Free Press was wrong to publish it." Doing their best middle-market impression of the New York Times, the paper assigned a team of reporters to investigate Albom's transgression and fact-check previous columns. (The paper has subsequently disciplined him.)
Sensing the shit rising, Albom provided a mildly contrite, above-the-fray apology to his readers: "While our deadline would have required some weird writing — something like, 'By the time you read this, if Mateen and Jason stuck to their plans, they would have sat in the stands for Saturday's game' — it should have been done. We have high standards at this newspaper, and I have high standards for myself. We — the editors and I — got caught in an assumption that shouldn't have happened. It won't happen again."
His fellow journalists (mostly the ones without radio shows, national television appearances, and six-figure book deals) gleefully lit their torches. "It recalls at least one aspect of the Jayson Blair affair — the art of pretending to be somewhere you aren't," Editor and Publisher's Joe Strupp wrote.
"There are plenty of timing challenges in health care, but we do not excuse physicians and nurses who cut corners," Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute (home of Romenesko's column), told the New York Times.
One tiny difference there, Bob-o: Albom writes a silly sports column and crappy books that become even crappier television movies. He doesn't perform heart bypasses. A surgeon should face dismissal if he leaves his car keys in a patient's chest cavity. When a newspaper columnist erroneously trusts his sources, it can be remedied in something called a corrections box.
It's a curious thing that journalists continue to take themselves so seriously. To the masses, we reside somewhere between lawyers and cockroaches — a cravenly sort who constantly whore ourselves to the highest bidder. Yet ask journalists what purpose they serve, and they'll provide a filibuster worthy of congressional Democrats on the sanctity of their duty as the fourth estate.
Albom was the most sanctimonious of the bunch, lecturing the masses about the virtues of journalism after the New York Times discovered Blair invented numerous stories. "What [Blair] doesn't get is that journalism is not Hollywood," Albom wrote. "It's not about closing the deal. It's not about face time. It's about — simply put — telling the truth."
Albom is Mr. Hollywood. (Hank Azaria won an Emmy for portraying him in the television version of Morrie.) He only continued to write the column to feed the rest of his media endeavors, which included playwriting, serving as a vocalist and keyboardist in the novelty band the Rock Bottom Remainders, hosting a radio talk show, and lots and lots of face time on ESPN.
Because the column scored him the recognition that turned him into a multimedia powerhouse, he couldn't abandon it. So a couple times a week he sat down and typed a few words about this or that inoffensive subject.
Albom became a caricature — more of an entity than a columnist. He had multimedia opinions — something that could easily fill an hour on the radio, a spot on ESPN, and a Sunday column. Sound bites became columns, and columns became sound bites.
Enter carelessness. And when it did, the everyday newspaper grunts, always jealous of the super-columnist, were ready to pounce. Albom provided an easy target. Not only had he risen to the highest level of the journalism caste system, but he shat upon those below him. During a very contentious and long Detroit newspaper strike, Albom had the gall to cross the picket line. While the grunts sacrificed to enhance their plight, multimedia Mitch pecked away at his computer, worried only about enhancing his own.
Like Barnicle, Ryan, Blair, and Greene before him, those with invisible bylines waited for Albom to slip-up. The size of the slip-up didn't matter. They could magnify it and snipe away.