It looks as though the Matter of Mitch is in its last act, although I predict a twist or two yet to come. Like so many of these stories, it’s mainly of interest to journalists; readers just want what they want from their newspaper, and to be spared the sausage-making. But even as a journalist, it’s hard to know what the final lesson is. Albom was cleared of a “pattern of deception,” but found guilty of quote-appropriation, or lifting quotes from work of others without always making it clear just where it came from. Or, to put it another way:
Mitch might write, “‘Sure, I killed my wife,’ O.J. Simpson claims,” not “‘Sure, I killed my wife,’ O.J. Simpson told Barbara Walters in a widely watched interview.” He claims this is no big deal, that everyone does it, and besides, sometimes he’s writing “an essay,” and attribution is no big deal, as long as the quotes are accurate.
Now, you can parse this stuff all day, and I don’t want to do too much. He has a point when he implies attribution would bog down his essay-ish sentences, and there’s a certain sort of tin-eared editor who thinks the most important words in the newspaper are “police said,” and any sentence without it or its equivalent is a lie. I’m in the middle, of course; I hated when editors larded up my copy with clunky, journalese phrases. I wanted the freedom to refer to Newt Gingrich without having to insert “R-Georgia” after the first reference. Mostly I got what I wanted, but at the same time, I never thought “told the Associated Press” was so awful, either. If I didn’t do an interview, if I pulled the quotes from another story, I gave credit. It just seemed sporting.
But if, having been a columnist, I know what Albom’s talking about, I also know a thing or two about the way they work, and I think that’s what’s missing from this whole inquiry — a big-picture look at just what this guy is doing. He has about six full-time jobs, and I don’t care how hard-working you are, how efficiently you multi-task, whether you work in between jobs in the back seat of your company-paid car-service ride. There are but 24 hours in a day. What I found most amazing in the report were passages like these: Albom wasn’t anywhere near the locker room after the game. He’d left early, whisked by luxury car service to his popular afternoon radio show on WJR-AM (760), three miles away.
So how did Albom get the postgame quotes? During commercial breaks in his show, he took the comments from TV and radio interviews. With his editor’s approval, Albom then dropped the quotes into his column without noting where he got them.
Convenient. Creative. But in terms of Free Press policy, not proper procedure.
In the frenetic universe of Mitch Albom — best-selling author, media personality and columnist — the hectic pace of that day was not unusual. He’s used to multitasking on the fly.
When did we get so enamored of success — look, he has a column and a radio show! — that we stopped caring that the sportswriter leaves the game early or, in the case of the NCAA game that started all of this, writes the story before the game even happened? It seems all this corner-cutting wouldn’t be necessary if there wasn’t so much ground to cover in the first place.
I say that as someone who, for a while, had a column and a radio show and a TV gig. It was fun until it wasn’t. And I never had a play and a best-seller to worry about, either.
Here’s something else I noticed, in a letter to the editor today: Mitch Albom’s Sunday column about a baby named Faith is a classic Albom essay: clear, thoughtful and moving. Huh. I read the same essay, and had a somewhat different reaction. Here’s the lead:
I’ve been feeling sorry for myself lately. I’ve had some dark clouds, and all I could see were my own problems.
The column goes on to tell the story of a newborn with water on the brain, and do you even need to know the conclusion? In her first days on Earth, this wordless child has put more sentences in my head than all those indulgent, self-pitying voices. She has made me think and cry and put the ridiculous problems I must deal with in perspective. The last line: What a miracle life is.
Now, I guess if you’re the sort of person who considers “Tuesdays With Morrie” to be great art, as opposed to sappy treacle with the soul of a Hallmark card, maybe you can take a column like this at face value. All I could think was, Christ, does he have an embarrassment gene? A friend of mine — Lance Mannion, in fact — once said, “A God that would let those planes fly into the World Trade Center so that George Bush could know his true purpose in life is not worth worshipping.” Meaning: That wasn’t God’s reason. Some events — an innocent newborn with a head full of fluid, for one — are NOT ABOUT US. I guess we’re all free to take whatever lessons we want from these things, but I’d hope we’d learn to keep it to ourselves.
But then, I think I remember the great engine of newspaper column-writing: Everything is copy. It’s one of the things that makes us contemptible. If it weren’t for the kindness of readers, we would have to get real jobs.
So I guess I should shut up now.
UPDATE: A reader tried to post this in the comments and couldn’t — some blacklist quirk, I guess. It’s a WashPost column about the late, great WashPost columnist Marjorie Williams, and makes the point that what made her great — what makes all great columnists great — is her willingness to tell the truth, and to spare no one from it, even herself.
Obviously, we all need a reason to get up in the morning, and that’s a big one for a columnist — truth-telling. Although spare me the ones who get up and say, “Today I will speak the truth.” The deftest tricks are the ones where you can speak the truth while seeming to only meet deadline.