Friday, April 15, 2005

Much About Mitch: Why Don't More Think There Should Be An Albom Cut At The "Free Press"

Maybe I'm missing something. Or perhaps the media have been so beaten down by the Jayson Blairs, the Jack Kellys and their odious ilk to muster sufficent outrage over the fact that Mitch Albom submitted an advance column about something that wound up never happening, but he penned it as if he was right there all along.

Albom made the mistake that even most pimply-faced cub reporters wouldn't attempt, let alone an award-winning, millionaire Friend Of Oprah columnist.

The reaction of editors has been, to say the very least, puzzling. Editor & Publisher's Joe Strupp recently polled a bunch of them at the ASNE convention, and only one came right out and said Albom should be canned outright.

"It is dishonest, and if you look at what we do, that is one of the things we cannot afford to do," said Rocky Mountain News editor and publisher John Temple, who nevertheless eqivocated on whether Albom should be ousted.

Then you have to wonder about guys like Bill Thomas, editor of the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, MI, who called Albom "sloppy," but praised him as "an accomplished writer who is entitled to one mistake."
Thomas is assuming there is just one mistake. But even if it's just this transgression, shouldn't that be enough when fiction masquerades as a column?

To be sure, Albom has engendered less sympathy in the trenches -- to a point. Aaron Bracy, who writes for the Courier-Post in suburban Philadelphia, took Albom to task for further widening the credibility gap between the media and readers, but said if this is a one-time offense, let it pass and have Albom and others learn from what happened. All well and good, but if Albom needs to learn not to deceive readers, does he really deserve his column?

Fortunately, the blogosphere has no shortage of seeing this issue for what it is. Among them is Bill Gallagher:

He could have written the piece in a number of different ways or he could have chosen to write about something else. His editors would have taken anything Lord Albom deigned to submit. But it's clear he followed his appetite for mushy, feel-good stuff and fictionalized the scene accordingly.

Then there are bloggers who think they know what they are talking about, but stumble badly when trying to spew out their tired left-leaning media conspiracy bromides to explain away Albom. Such is James Joyner's

I would point out that columns and even straight news stories are written ALL THE TIME as if the story had already happened. It's not unusual to get a story from the wire services or major newspapers written several hours before, say, a presidential speech that already has the quotes (via advance copy) of what the president will say and, indeed, (via reactions to the advance copy) the reaction of Democratic opponents and Republican supporters.

Yes, and no. In his rush to make the facts fit his opinion, Joyner leaves out a crucial element. While the stories are written before the speech is delivered, they say so ("In remarks prepared for delivery tonight, the president said....."). There's no deception. The stories are advancers and everybody knows that up front. If the president deviated from the script, the story can be updated in later editions. Albom didn't provide himself any wiggle room, and when the events he described didn't pan out, he made himself and the Detroit Free Press look foolish.

Joyner then launches a non-sequitur missile when he argues what Albom did was akin to writing obituaries in advance of somebody dying. What he conveniently forgets, or maybe never knew, is that newspapers didn't tell you the pope died before he actually did. Writers of non-fiction don't assume.

In a conclusion that only someone who gives the impression that they've never set foot inside a newsroom could make, Joyner says what Albom did was "not unethical, unprofessional or unusual."

Let's hope Albom's bosses at the Free Press don't feel the same.


Mouse said...

Hi Steve, something on your page caused my computer to seize up... I wonder what it was?

Steve Gosset said...

Not aware of there being anything amiss on my end. Might have been a momentary glitch. Sorry.