Monday, May 02, 2005

He's Baaaack! But Is Mitch Albom Really Sorry?


His Royal Albomness finally re-emerged over the weekend, after being exiled by the Detroit Free Press while it conducted its "investigation" of last month's column, where he wrote about an event that never happened to meet a deadline for an early Sunday edition.

The latest column was a mixture of forgiveness and giving the finger to his many critics, while nonetheless offering to turn the other cheek. Thanks, St. Mitch, you are so the man. If you missed his missive, let's deconstruct the most salient portions to see what he said and what he really meant.

The last three weeks have been the darkest yet most enlightening of my professional life. The dark part is obvious. I made a careless mistake in a column. It wasn't malicious. It didn't harm the subjects. But it was factually incorrect in four paragraphs. I assumed something would happen that didn't. That was wrong.

So far, so good. But wait.

I apologized to my bosses. We were going to run a correction. Then we decided to go further. I apologized on the front page of the sports section, something unprecedented, but indicative that we took it seriously.

The April 7 mea culpa was actually a three-paragraph note, in which Albom did use the word "apology," but spent most of the rest of his space rationalizing how he screwed up and offered his early deadline as one excuse for a mistake most cub reporters know not to make.

And then, as Dick Enberg says, "Oh my!"
A volcano erupted. An explosion that mixed the criticism I deserved with a lava flow of anger, hate, self-righteousness and people who once called themselves friends preferring to act as my judge and jury.

I went from sorry, to shocked, to saddened, to silent. I didn't want to lash out. I felt terrible for the mistake, terrible that my newspaper had to take heat, terrible that my editors were besieged.

Is this where we're supposed to be grateful to Albom for not lashing out? What snappy retort would we be treated to?
"Hey, I sacrificed my credbility and that of my newspaper by writing a column that turned out to be fiction? But so what? I'm filthy, stinkin' rich and Oprah returns my calls. I won't be meeting you in Heaven, sucka!"
Albom is no dummy. He kept his mouth shut because the wagons kept on circling ever tighter and there was still no guarantee the Free Press would take him back, though in hindsight that was a no-brainer given Albom's marquee value, something in short supply at the Freep.

Time passed. Lumps were taken. And people moved on. I have been slow to return to this column because a lot has been said and done, and a lot seems changed. The boundless joy I always felt for this newspaper business has been socked in the stomach.

Now you know how we feel.

If I ever needed a humbling reminder to slow down, something I've struggled with for years, here was that lesson again. That column was filed in a hurry on a day when I wrote another column right after it. Too fast. Too dangerous.

Don't forget, he also does a radio show, appears on TV and writes books. A column is very tempting to turn into an afterthought. Slow down? Don't count on it. The money's too good. And what a crushing blow Albom would deal to his ego if he admitted that maybe he really can't do it all.

And if I ever needed to learn the stinging irony of this business, I've had my chance. In the race to report on my journalistic error, you could barely count the mistakes and falsehoods that were committed. From a TV station that called me a Pulitzer Prize winner (I'm not) to a major sports magazine that chastised my column on two players who weren't at the Final Four, then got it wrong by saying I wasn't at the Final Four.

This is Albom's way of saying, "I know you are, but what am I?" Falsehoods? Please. That's a word you see in briefs filed for a libel suit. Grow up.

So it might be easy to go from sorry to screaming. Hate people back. But to what end? Having asked for forgiveness myself, I can do no less than give it.
So I will not swipe at those who swiped at me. It was my mistake. I'll own up to it. Besides, in 20 years of doing this column, I have never written for those people.
I write for you.

Some have argued that Albom doesn't fall into Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke territory because he didn't willfully fabricate an event -- that he wrote about something that was supposed to happen, but never came off for various reasons.
But it was still dumb, reckless and toying with one of the few tangible commodities a newspaper has with its readers -- telling the truth. You take it on faith that when a columnist writes about two Michigan State alumni at the Final Four to root on their school, their fannies were in the seats doing just that. But when they were not, and Albom indicates otherwise, how seriously can you take him as a columnist, or the newspaper that continues to employ him?
Every journalist has made a mistake here or there. Fortunately, most don't rise to a firing offense, which is what printing fiction in a column would be for anyone with the less-exalted status that Albom enjoys.

I know there are kids who read this newspaper. I know there are kids who read my column. Some teachers even use it in schools.
Well, you kids need to know that what I did was a mistake. It was careless, and you should learn from it. Be better than I was on that day. Know that you can't assume something is going to happen, even a sunrise, because the one time you write it as if it happened, the sun might not rise. Nobody's perfect. But that doesn't mean you don't try. And if you mess up, say you're sorry, as I am saying again here.

Quick! Call the podiatrist. There's a columnist in Detroit who requires a foot extraction from his mouth. Albom shouldn't have to write a smug journalistic primer like above. It was something so simple, so basic, yet it was expedient to simply hope what he wrote about would go down. After all, he's Mitch Albom! What could possibly go wrong?

The sermon concluded thus:

And know this: Just as you can't assume the future, you also can't assume human nature. It won't always be kind. It won't always be fair or friendly. But if you want to grow into good, balanced journalists, the thing you should most remember is the thing that was most forgotten these last few weeks:
Protect it. Cherish it. And you -- and I -- with God's grace, will be fine.

Words to live by. We'll see if he has that perspective if he ever feels tempted to question the manhood of some middle linebacker who missed a crucial tackle.
Kids, here's a better lesson: Take those last few paragraphs to heart. Just ignore who wrote them, as the author has a long way to go to figure out what they really mean.

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