Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Mitch Albom, ethics, and journalism's image problem

May 21, 2011

Tags: current events, ethics

An item popped up on the Romenesko journalism blog the other day about Mitch Albom, the author and Detroit Free Press columnist, getting into an on-air radio spat with Frank Beckmann, a local radio talk show host. The issue was ethics - it seems Albom, who also dabbles in screenwriting, has been advocating that Michigan keep a tax break for production companies that film in Michigan. One of the beneficiaries is a project he's working on.

Beckmann had a problem with Albom's ethics. Nothing new, I thought. Many of you know I was deeply involved in the Detroit newspaper strike, during which Albom scabbed, crossing his own union's picket line to return to work. He mentioned going out on strike in July 1995 in the early going of his best-selling Tuesdays with Morrie, which he seems to have begun while most of the rest of us were pounding the picket line. And near as I can tell (I couldn't get through the book, which struck me as a Hallmark card with chapters), he didn't mention later in the book that he eventually scabbed. Not everyone sees crossing a picket line as an ethical failure, which helps explain the plight of the American working class today. But I do, as do my labor-conscious friends.

Fast forward to 2003, and the release of Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven. The Free Press commissioned a review, which Albom reportedly saw after it was filed, "had some type of hissy fit" over the reviewer's slamming of the book, and the negative review got spiked. I think most people would have a problem with the ethics in that one.

Two years later, the Free Press published a column by Albom about two NBA players attending a Final Four basketball game to cheer on Michigan State University, their alma mater. Problem was, the players never got there - Albom wrote the column ahead of time, but filed it as though it had happened. In short, he made stuff up, a cardinal sin in journalism (as Albom himself pointed out during the Jayson Blair affair, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute reminded us).

And now he's actively engaged in a political process over tax breaks for an industry in which he has a vested interest. Which has me thinking on this Saturday morning, why is he still in journalism? How many ethical lines does a journalist have to cross before he is benched? And, more broadly, why are newspaper editors surprised about the public's cynicism about our profession, when they turn a blind eye to such lapses of judgement?

Although I guess we should be thankful Albom's not doing something more problematic, like inviting sources to special nights of insider entertainment while rubbing elbows with top political figures in Washington.
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About me

A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.

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