I am Mitch Albom. We are all Mitch Albom.
I don't mean I've committed the same sin Albom has. Except when obviously joking, I've never made things up in a story, invented reality, the way Albom did last week in his column about former Michigan State stars Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves attending the Final Four.
What I'm saying is this: It's fine to throw stones at Albom because he did break that cardinal rule, but let he who has never cut a corner really put some mustard on that rock.
Albom wrote in his Sunday column last week about Cleaves and Richardson, now NBA players, attending Michigan State's NCAA semifinal game the night before in St. Louis. He described how they flew in, how they sat together wearing MSU gear, how they talked about the camaraderie and good times of college life, which they miss now that they're in the moneyed but isolating world of the NBA.
The problem was that none of this had happened when Albom wrote the column, which he did on Friday because the section in which it ran was printed Saturday, before the game. He'd interviewed the two men, who told him their plans and gave him the quotes about campus life.
But their plans changed, they didn't show at the game, and Albom, the Free Press and Tribune Media Services, which syndicates his column, all issued apologies, though it took them a few days to get to it.
Albom has been suspended while the paper investigates whether this was a pattern of behavior on his part or just a one time bad assumption, as Albom downplayed it in his weak, halfhearted mea culpa.
It's easy to dislike Mitch Albom. He's rich. He's hugely successful. He has bad hair. He's everywhere, writing a column, hosting a radio show, making TV appearances and penning sappy bestselling books. He's a blowhard and a cheap sentimentalist.
He's a hypocrite, too. His massively successful "Tuesdays With Morrie" chronicled his conversations with a wise old dying professor who had a tough social conscience forged during the Depression, when Morrie witnessed brutal working conditions in factories. While he was talking to Morrie and writing the book, Albom was a scab at the Free Press, having crossed the picket line during a violent, wrenching newspaper strike.
The guy's a piece of work. He's instant schadenfreude. Feel free.
But there's more to it than that. Albom's column passed through several hands before it hit the press. Each person who read it -- I'm guessing, at the very least, a sports editor, two copy editors and a makeup editor -- knew that what Albom was describing could not have happened yet. No one said a thing.
Albom's column was reprinted in papers all over the country, with at least a copy editor most likely reading it before publication in each, all knowing that the semifinal game hadn't happened yet. They all pushed it through, with one exception.
Nikki Overfelt, a rookie copy editor at the Duluth News Tribune, changed the tenses in Albom's copy, according to the Chicago Tribune, making it read as though the game hadn't happened yet, which it hadn't.
Overfelt, fresh out of Kansas University, is the Copy Editor Appreciation Society's woman of the month, and that says a lot, because all she did is what everyone in her position was supposed to do and didn't. "I've been telling people that I hope they don't think I've done a huge thing," she told the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal World.
But it is a big deal, not because she did the right thing but because no one else did. And that's why this whole thing, while it's most certainly about Mitch Albom, is not just about Mitch Albom.
It reminds me of something that dawned on me about big-time college sports two years ago in the wake of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy's murder. The killing led to revelations that the basketball program, a perennial doormat, had been rampant with cheating and corruption.
"Every time we learn something about big-time college sports," I wrote then, "we learn how corrupt they are."
I had that same thought when I heard about Albom's Final Four column. Only now we're talking about my profession. It seems like every time a bright light shines on a newsroom, we see lying, corner-cutting, plagiarism, conflict of interest and, yeah, bad assumptions. I don't have to list the familiar names for you: Jayson Blair, Mike Barnicle, Stephen Glass, Dan Rather. And so on.
What's so dismaying about this is that at its heart, journalism is the simplest business in the world. "It's about -- simply put -- telling the truth."
You know who wrote those words, don't you? Mitch Albom, in a 2003 column about Blair.
The Detroit Free Press publishes its code of ethics for all to see. Here's how it starts:
"1. We tell the truth. We don't mislead readers. We do not publish made-up material ... We quote people accurately. We don't imply we have witnessed events we haven't seen or been in places we haven't been."
It's been widely noted that Albom, like most star columnists, benefited from a hands-off editorial policy. You don't touch the big guy's golden prose. That's why all those Free Press editors let his column go. They're used to not challenging him, reading him closely. What's the point if you're just going to be told to leave it alone? Of course that makes it easier for mistakes, even huge ones, to get past.
But it's not just the stars. I cut my teeth on the night copy desk at the San Francisco Examiner, a paper pretty much like any other in most ways. Early on, I was working on a story and found some inconsistency. Something didn't make sense. I brought my concern to the story's editor, who brought it to the boss of the moment, the metro editor. We were right on deadline.
The metro editor, evidently with better things to do than make sure the stories in the paper were accurate and made sense, turned around and said in a loud voice dripping with sarcasm, "Tell the copy desk their concerns will be forwarded to the Pulitzer committee."
The story stood and the lesson was learned. They weren't paying me enough to make my little corner of the paper better over the objections of the bosses. I learned to coast. My main objective on each shift: Get to the end of the shift with as little effort as possible.
You see, I started out as Nikki Overfelt. The business turned me into Mitch Albom. And the business has only become more brutal in the years since as costs have been cut, work has been sped up and all pretense of having any goal other than maximizing profits has come to seem quaint.
A few years later I was writing for the paper. I got sent to Lollapalooza to write pretty much whatever I wanted about the music festival. I wandered around, talking to kids. There were about 20,000 people there, and some of the kids I talked to wouldn't give me their last name. It occurred to me how easy it would be to just make up a good, funny quote if I needed to, attribute it to "15-year-old Jennifer from the South Bay."
I didn't do it, though if I had nobody would have known.
I didn't do it because even then, in the pre-Web days when it didn't seem like a huge audience was looking over my shoulder waiting to catch me in the slightest misstep, I was afraid I'd get caught.
I didn't do it because this is all I have, you believing me. Yeah, I can rattle them nouns and verbs around a little, but that wouldn't matter a bit if readers didn't believe I was telling the truth, not making things up, not copying other people's work, not taking favors from anybody to push a certain point of view.
That's all any of us have. Like Mitch Albom wrote, it's simple: Tell the truth. Not easy -- there's little spots of blood on my forehead every day from thinking about this column -- but simple. And if you blow that, you blow everything.
Part of me wants to hate Mitch Albom for what he did, to fire a rock at him with everything I have. Because even though he can afford to take a chance like he did, figuring no one will notice, and even though he can afford to get caught, to lose his column even, the rest of the profession can't.
And thanks to Albom, we've all lost a little bit of our credibility, again. We've all been painted just a tiny little bit with the broad brush painting Albom, this time, as a cheat.
But I can't throw that rock full speed. Because the profession, my profession, created Mitch Albom, let him do what he did, let him not get challenged, not get caught until it was too late, and only then because the basketball players didn't show up when they'd said they would.
It's not necessarily true, you know, that there are cheaters and liars and plagiarists everywhere you look in journalism. There are studies that suggest journalists score fairly high on moral reasoning tests, though there may be a disconnect between test answers and real behavior.
I'd like to think the honest and fearless outnumber the cheaters and shortcut-takers, that we only hear so much about misbehavior because ethical behavior isn't news.
It just doesn't feel that way right now. We have Mitch Albom to thank for that, but we have a lot more people to thank than Mitch Albom.
Previous column: "Three Nights in August"
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