Case closed, maybe.

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.

Posted at 9:30 am in Uncategorized |
 

13 responses to “Case closed, maybe.”

  1. blue girl said on May 17, 2005 at 10:05 am

    I love when you write about writing. Very good post today.

    Since you know so much about the sausage-making process — do you think Michael Isikoff of Newsweek was set-up?

  2. Dorothy said on May 17, 2005 at 10:39 am

    I agree with blue girl. I read you, Nance, to help me feel smarter. And hopefully in the process, I do get smarter. I love reading the insightful comments from all your other readers, too. I wish I’d gone to college so I could keep up better, or make more interesting comments, but in my head I understand what you are saying. It’s getting the words to come out of my mouth to sound just as interesting that’s the challenge.

    BTW, I just read “The Glass Castle” last week while on vacation. Very interesting book by Jeannette Walls. She sure made something of herself after a perfectly awful childhood. So why does it bother me so much that she’s writing a gossip column for MSNBC now? I’m probably wrong to judge – but I think she could do better.

    And my daughter is loving her Dow Jones training in Florida. Was Alan a “Dow Jonesy” as they call themselves?

  3. Jolene said on May 17, 2005 at 10:54 am

    For Dorothy: Getting the words to come out of your mouth in a way that sounds interesting can be pretty challenging even if you did go to college–even if you went to graduate school.

  4. Randy said on May 17, 2005 at 11:05 am

    Here in Winnipeg, the leading sports columnist at the leading daily was sunk by allegations of plagiarism and misattribution.

    He had the job for 20+ years, and over time he became a contributor on a local radio morning show, a commentor on a range of TV sports channels, and whatever else he could gets his paws on.

    For a few years he was eerily omnipresent. Having stretched himself too thin, he was finally exposed, by a faithful reader, who provided the paper with documentation of his many stolen paragraphs, misattributed quotes and so on.

    He got so busy he just stopped going to the games, and then took stuff off the internet, assuming nobody in Winnipeg would notice a graph was stolen from a paper in Toronto.

    He offered some bluster, then disappeared after Canada’s leading daily paper the Globe and Mail, smacked him down with their own investigative reporting.

    He still works for the radio station. The paper that let him go has never provided its readership with anything beyond a terse two or three paragraph notice of his dismissal.

  5. mary said on May 17, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    Dorothy,

    I had the same reaction to the Jeanette Walls story. I didn’t read the book. I saw an article in some magazine about her. After all the incredible amount of effort she had to put into getting an education, escaping the craziness of her family, why become someone who writes about Paris Hilton?

  6. brian stouder said on May 17, 2005 at 5:05 pm

    Hey – not for nothing, remember Robin Miller, a motorsports columnist who DID tell the truth, and who did NOT crib other people’s work –

    and who honestly called it like he saw it with regard to Indianapolis’s sacred cow (maybe now it’s a sacred sow) – the Indianapolis 500.

    The Star fired him – they say for inappropriate office behavior (e-mails to a female co-worker, I think) – and I believe it went to court. It may still be there, but I will always believe he got whacked for refusing to drink the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Kool Aid.

    But – he still has his integrity

  7. joodyb said on May 17, 2005 at 6:32 pm

    I can’t believe Bob Greene’s name didn’t come up in all that unraveling. He jumped to mind like the proverbial sore thumb. I think it was the line, “What a miracle life is.”

    But then, I lived in Bexley.

    Joe has a radio show. And he has written at least one book.

  8. ashley said on May 17, 2005 at 6:55 pm

    FWIW, starting in September, you will have to either pay or subscribe to read the NYT op-ed pages.

    Seeing as how the op-ed columns are the ones most frequently emailed, I wonder if this will put a price on the journalist’s views.

  9. Nance said on May 17, 2005 at 7:42 pm

    Joody, exactly. I’ve gone many years without having an opinion one way or another about Albom, since I pay little or no attention to sportswriting, and I’m not in the market for easy platitudes about life in small books with wiiiide margins. But when you start drawing trite life lessons from babies, you’re getting dangerously close to Greeneland. If you haven’t landed there already.

  10. mary said on May 18, 2005 at 3:03 am

    The best sportswriting around is being done by Grace Lichtenstein, a free lancer. Her stuff is usually about women in sports, particularly extreme sports. She wrote a good book back in the seventies about the growth of women’s tennis, right at the very beginning. She learned her craft from Red Smith at the NYT years ago, and her stuff is worth looking for.

  11. Jeff said on May 18, 2005 at 7:39 am

    Mucho comments on writing, and agreed, but this pastor and writer wanted to note that, from my perspective, Lance and Nance’s theology is first-rate, too. It isn’t all about us . . . and not to scare anybody (i have issues with Rick Warren all over the map), but the best part of “The Purpose Driven Life” phenomena is the first line, which is a recurring theme of the book: “It’s not about you.”

  12. Michael G said on May 18, 2005 at 8:44 am

    Hey, easy on Bob Greene. I ever grateful for his having led me to nn.c.

  13. Michael G said on May 18, 2005 at 8:46 am

    Whoops — I are ever grate, no; I am ever gr, I be eve — Oh well.