As Probe Begins, Columnists' Group Prez Criticizes Mitch Albom

By: Dave Astor National Society of Newspaper Columnists President Suzette Martinez Standring today called an April 3 column by Mitch Albom "bogus" and an "egregious ethical lapse." Columnists, she added, "do not fabricate events or characters and pawn them off as truth."

In an e-mail to E&P, she also quoted NSNC past president Pete Rowe of The San Diego Union-Tribune as speculating that Albom, "despite the take-time-to-smell-the-roses message of [his best-selling book] 'Tuesdays with Morrie,' is over-committed. He writes columns and books. Last I heard, he was still hosting radio shows and showing up regularly on ESPN. Maybe he's pressed for time and taking shortcuts?"

Meanwhile, Dave Robinson, a deputy managing editor at the Detroit Free Press, where Albom is based, told E&P that the columnist's error was "a serious offense but not a firing offense." And he said the newspaper has firmed up plans to investigate.

Robinson said Albom's mistake -- which involved writing in the past tense about something that hadn't happened yet (and in the end, didn't happen) -- will be investigated by the Free Press in the same way as if it was made by a less-famous staffer. He revealed that the Free Press team investigating the error will include an editor and reporters. "The review will be done quickly but thoroughly," he said. "It won't be finished in a day or two, but it won't be months, either."

The investigation was announced today in a note to readers by Carole Leigh Hutton, publisher and editor of the Free Press. Hutton, who could not be reached for comment, said such a review is standard under the paper's ethics policy and that the results will be reported in the Free Press.

Albom, in a column submitted April 1 for April 3 publication, wrote about something he thought would happen on April 2. Albom had interviewed two NBA players about their plans to get together at last Saturday's NCAA basketball game between Michigan State and North Carolina. Then he wrote in the past tense about their experience at the game. But the two players ended up not attending the game.

The columnist -- author of the current best-seller "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" -- wrote an apology in yesterday's Free Press. His syndicate, Tribune Media Services, attached the apology to an advisory it sent Albom's client newspapers (see E&P article).

In her statement, Standring suggested that early deadline pressure for Sunday papers might have contributed to the episode: "While Albom was wrong to write up early interviews as past-tense facts, what kind of pressure is regularly brought to bear on writers to jump the gun, and keep their fingers crossed that the future unfolds as written?" She added: "Perhaps this practice to beat the clock is more prevalent than newspapers want to admit."

Robinson was the Free Press' sports editor from 1985 to 1993, and oversees sports (as well as other departments) in his current deputy managing editor position. So he has known Albom for about 20 years, and feels the error is very atypical for the columnist. "He's a fine writer and reporter," said Robinson. "He does his homework and talks to tons of people. He's a good person who made a big mistake and owned up to it. The mistake was not malicious -- and not even central to the column. Only a few words would have had to be changed."

Albom, who could not be reached for comment, wrote in his apology that the "thrust" of the column was "about nostalgia and college athletes," but said what he did "was wrong just the same" and won't happen again.

According to Robinson, Albom received more than 50 mostly supportive e-mails after yesterday's apology, with many agreeing the columnist had made a mistake but appreciating his mea culpa. Robinson said e-mails and voice mails sent to the Free Press' public editor and others at the paper were more mixed, with some readers angry and critical.


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