Portrait of the Columnist as a Pampered Athlete
If you've missed the story so far:
1. All-World columnist and author Mitch Albom wrote a piece about two NBA players, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson, who attended a Final Four game to cheer for their school, Michigan State University. According to the story: "They sat in the stands, in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma mater ... And both made it a point to fly in from wherever they were in their professional schedule just to sit together Saturday."
2. It turns out that Cleaves and Richardson did not attend the game.
3. It turns out that Albom wrote the column on a Friday, the day before the game, for a section that was being prepared for Sunday, the day after the game. In other words, he described an event that hadn't happened as if it had already happened.
4. It turns out that he interviewed Cleaves and Richardson separately about their intentions to attend the game, and about their nostalgia for their college days.
5. It turns out that Albom issued an apology for the story, explaining the circumstances, and describing his transgression as "an assumption that shouldn't have happened."
6. It turns out that the publisher and editor of the Detroit Free Press, Carole Leigh Hutton, explained to readers that "Albom was wrong to report that the athletes were there when the game had not yet been played. And the Free Press was wrong to publish it."
7. It turns out that Albom's editors are also coming under scrutiny. They were, after all, in charge of producing this coverage in advance of the event. And unless they didn't read the column, they knew the author was not a witness to events that were yet to transpire.
Suddenly Albom's critics and detractors seemed as numerous and animated as the students at a championship game. In letters to Jim Romenesko and elsewhere they slammed Albom, some with earnest concern for ethics, and others with madcap glee.
I have admired Albom, mostly from afar, for many years. His television and radio commentary always seemed informed, disciplined and edgy. He has generously volunteered his time to speak at Poynter's National Writers Workshops. He has won an ASNE Distinguished Writing Award, and Chip Scanlan and I have reprinted one of his columns in our anthology "America's Best Newspaper Writing." Albom is a talented musician and composer, and, at a convention of sports writers, he and I shared a keyboard and microphone for an unrehearsed rendition of "Louie, Louie."
So what happened? And what should be done about it?
I think this case will present an opportunity to examine the world of the elite newspaper columnist. I'm talking about the columnist who becomes the franchise player for a newspaper. Such columnists get to write in their own voices. They attract a crowd. They become identified with their newspapers. They earn big bucks. They keep the cash registers ringing for the business side. Many of them, such as Albom, are in sports. But others -- Mike Barnicle (when he was at The Boston Globe) comes to mind -- work the news side.
Something happens to these newspaper writers over time. Because of their profile, they become celebrities. Because of their celebrity, they become cottage industries. The siren song of fame and fortune is seductive enough. Not only is Mitch Albom one of the most celebrated sports columnists in the world, he is also the author of two astonishingly successful best-sellers. (I'm sure I'm not the first writer to express envy.) He offers his opinions on ESPN and on his own radio talk show.
But what about the column?
I worry that it no longer gets the attention that it deserves. I worry that the columnist begins to take shortcuts. Hell, it's hard enough to write two or three good columns a week. Isn't it obvious that all your other obligations will lead to shortcuts?
As I write this on the day of the pope's funeral (it has already happened, I swear), I'm tempted to quote scripture, the words that remind us that no man can serve two masters. How, then, can a man or woman serve three masters, or five, or 10? Mike Barnicle should have given up his column for The Boston Globe before he departed due to malpractice. It might be time for Albom to do the same.
Of course, editors and publishers may not like this idea. Radio, cable television, the book publishing world all enlarge the profile of the franchise player. It's better not to ask Mark McGwire if he's taking steroids. After all, he's smashing 70 home runs for your team.
As Mitch Albom has expressed so powerfully: star athletes get pampered, and this is not good for the athlete, and it's not good for the game. The same is true for star columnists.
Roy Peter Clark has done consulting work for The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.