By: Joe Strupp
Columnist Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, who drew a suspension from the paper for writing a column about a basketball game that had yet to happen ? and getting some facts wrong – returned to print on Sunday with a column that offered both apologies and criticism of those covering his plight. He denounced the “lava flow of anger, hate, self-righteousness and people who once called themselves friends preferring to act as my judge and jury.?
Carole Leigh Hutton, editor and publisher of the Free Press, told E&P on Sunday that the Albom affair had drawn sharp reactions, both for and against the writer. ?I have been yelled at quite soundly by readers for having him out of the paper,? Hutton told E&P. ?But plenty have yelled at me for putting him back in the paper.?
Some critics have charged that Albom, the bestselling author and radio and TV personality, is overstretched, but Hutton said she had not asked Albom to ease up on his other outside responsibilities to prevent a future problem with his column. ?I don?t know if that played a role in what happened,? Hutton said. ?I have no intention of changing what he does for us or asking him to change what else he does.?
Albom’s comeback column today came nearly a month after his controversial April 3 column that described elements of an April 2 Michigan State basketball game, but was written on April 1. He placed two Michigan State alum at the game, but they never showed up.
Following the column?s publication–it was also syndicated by through Tribune Media Services–Albom received harsh criticism from readers and some other journalists for writing about the game as though it had happened. Some called for his firing, while others said he should be given another chance. Ultimately, Hutton chose to ?discipline? Albom and four other unidentified employees without letting them go, but has yet to reveal the punishment.
In his comeback column, Albom sought forgiveness, admitting he had made a terrible mistake. “Even the dark times bring enlightenment,? the column began. “I try not to bother God too often, but I do sometimes ask Him for grace, to lend me some when I need to display it. I admit to asking now.
?The last three weeks have been the darkest yet most enlightening of my professional life,? the column continued. ?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. 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.?
That was a reference to Albom?s April 7 column, his last in the paper, in which he admitted mistakes, but did not offer to resign.
?A volcano erupted,? he continued. ?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.?
Albom added that he was ?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.?
But Albom also could not hold back some criticism of those who had covered his troubles, writing, ?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.?
Still, the majority of the column kept to the effort to offer some contrition and garner sympathy, with passages like this: ?If I ever wanted to learn what it was like to be an athlete or coach with people screaming for your head, I’ve learned. It’s no fun. I hope always to remember that feeling before rushing after someone in print. 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.?
Albom, who also returned to his perch Sunday on ESPN?s ?The Sports Reporters? could not be reached for comment. Hutton, who had declined to specifically reveal Albom?s discipline, citing respect for employee privacy, remained mum on his punishment Sunday.
Hutton would not go into details about why she chose to keep Albom on the job, repeating only her previous reason that his sin did not constitute a fireable offense. She also said no concerns about him possibly going to the rival Detroit News or another paper entered into the decision to keep him.
?It?s not like he needs the job,? she said, noting Albom?s other television, radio, and book outlets. ?If he left the Free Press, he?d probably not work at another newspaper. I can honestly tell you, that did not cross my mind.?