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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

More MSM Scandals: What's Up at The Freep? Albom Scandal Tip of an MSM Iceberg?

Detroit Free Press sports writer/ESPN commentator/sports radio star/best-selling author Mitch Albom misled readers in an April 3 column that quoted two Michigan State basketball players as if they were at a game they didn't actually attend, the Michigan newspaper said yesterday in a massive reporting package detailing its five-week internal investigation into the celebrity journalist's actions.

In a takeout that started above the fold on A1 and consumed two full inside pages, including charts, sidebars and takeout quotes, the Freep said its star "described events at a Michigan State basketball game that had yet to take place and that later proved to be false"

The paper also said its investigation found that Albom "at times has used quotes from newspapers, TV programs or other publications without indicating that he did not gather the material himself, in violation of the Freep's rules on crediting sources." Albom "in several instances" used quotes "exclusively gathered by another media organization," the paper said.

"Albom was not alone in this," the Freep said. "The review found that other Free Press columnists have also failed to give credit for quotes gathered by other news organizations." The paper's long-standing editorial policy requires reporters to credit others work when they use it, that they accurate quote people they themselves interview and that they not mislead readers.

Alboms is well-known to a national sports audience as a result of his regular appearances on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" Sunday program. His New York Times best-seller "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" was recently made into a movie. He's been named the country's best newspaper sports writer by the Associated Press Sports Writers numerous times since 1986.

Albom "vigorously defended his integrity and his approach," the Freep said. He claimed Freep editors approved the use of unattributed quotes by him and other columnists in the newsroom, according to the paper. He argued to the paper's investigators that columnists get more leeway than other writers in the newspaper and that it is more important that they use the quotes accurately than identify who collected them.

"I've been at the Free Press for 20 years, have never had a whiff of controversy," Albom told the Freep. "And I would like to think I did a decent job in those 20 years."

In describing how Albom wrote the offending column, the Freep seemed to suggest Albom's hectic schedule was to blame:

"It was a sweet, sunny Monday afternoon in early April and Albom was juggling, as usual. He'd arrived at Comerica Park hours before the Tigers seaon opener. He hit the locker room and press box and prowled the stands, gathering quotes and atmospherics for his front-page column the next day, a story headlined 'What a wonderful time in Detroit.'

"'You couldn't have written a better script,' manager Alan Trammell said after the game.

"Albom dutifully recorded the remarks and those of the day's hero, designated hitter Dmitri Young. But 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 post-game quotes? During commercial breaks in his show, he took the comments from TV and radio interview. 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."

The Detroit News, which shares an operating agreement with the Freep and is the latter's long-time rival in Motor City journalism, today said the Freep investigative reporter who led the Albom inquiry was unhappy with the way his newsroom bosses reported the results of his work and that of his colleagues.

"Now the investigation itself is under fire, as several reporters who worked on the review say editors emphasized elements that supported Albom rather than criticized him ... Free Press investigative reporter David Zeman said Monday he and other reporters who conducted the five-week investigation were disappointed that editors chose to emphasize 'what we didn't find, instead of what we did find.'"

The News quoted a Poynter Institute "ethics group leader" who said of the Freep's handling of the report that "There's a sports metaphor for this -- it's called pulling a punch. From what you describe to me, it sounds as if their loyalties were not with the reader, but with their own."

The Albom scandal has implications far beyond the Detroit newspapers, according to the News. "The issue matters to more than those who work in the downtown Detroit office that houses both The Detroit News and the Free Press. At a time when public trust in the media is low, credibility is a treasured commodity."

The News reported that Free Press Publisher and Editor Carole Leigh Hutton denied in an interview that she had sought to water down the story. She said the lead and headline were changed to be more "newsy. We were just trying to be more clear and more newsy. God knows if we were about taking care of Mitch, there wouldn't have been any investigative report."

The Freep story quoted Hutton as saying the results of her paper's investigation "reflect a lack of familiarity with the paper's rules on attribution. She said she would take steps to address the problems."


Which is more disturbing, the fact one of the nation's best known sports writers - a journalist who has been widely honored by his profession for two decades - routinely thought nothing of using other people's work without proper credit or that his employer found he was far from alone in the Freep newsroom in doing the same thing?

Since when do professional journalists have to be reminded that simple honesty dictates that they not present the work of others as if it was their own?

How does Hutton propose to reassure Freep readers and the many honest reporters and editors working in the Freep newsroom that their efforts will not be tarred by association with Albom and others using unattributed quotes?

Do only sports reporters do this? What about the editorial page? And the news pages?

Could this scandal in Detroit tell us something about why so many people so often complain that they are misquoted by daily newspaper reporters across the country?


JProf is disturbed by the message Albom's attitude communicates to journalism students. Says Jim Stovall:

"But the most troubling of all is Albom’s attitude toward changing a direct quotation to make it livelier. Albom says that’s ok if the quote is “essentially accurate.”
That is certainly not the message that those of us who teach writing want to send to our students. Such is not the thinking of a meticulous reporter."

Read Prof. Stovall's complete post here. Unfortunately, he doesn't have Trackback or a comment capability on the site.

RightNumberOne thinks the Freep's lede says it all about rampant newsroom plagiarism and the attitudes that make it possible.