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Raising a little hell about this year’s Red Smith Award winner

I asked a friend, "Should I write about Mitch Albom?"

"Why?" he said.

"He's won the Red Smith thing now, five years after that Final Four column."

"No, leave him alone. Old news."

But another friend said, "Shouldn't somebody raise hell about this?"

Albom, the Detroit Free Press star, raised unshirted hell in 2003 when Jayson Blair was found to have made it all up while working for The New York Times. "What he doesn't get," Albom wrote of Blair, "is that journalism is not Hollywood. It's not about closing the deal. It's not about face time. It's about — simply put — telling the truth."

I paid attention, then, when Albom, an unlikely guardian of journalistic values, recently spoke up again on the practice of our craft. First he did a column on how the media had behaved poorly during the LeBronathon, reporting what he considered to be silly rumors.

"Note to journalism students," he wrote. "When we celebrate investigative reporting, it's for issues like war crimes, nursing home scandals or police corruption. It's not to report that LeBron James has opened a Twitter account."

The advice came shortly after the Associated Press Sports Editors organization did a curious thing. It gave Albom its highest honor. The Red Smith Award, named after the elegant wordsmith, recognizes lifetime achievement in sports journalism. At the Smith ceremony, Albom issued even more advice.

"Be ruthless with yourself, be compassionate with those you cover," he said, according to a transcript of his speech. "Be scared of praise, be brave about criticism. Be aware that a microphone is a funny thing, it changes people. Be sensitive that ‘on the record' is a guideline, not a trap. Be mindful that a pen is a powerful thing – and a pen plus the Internet can change a person's life forever. The image from the movie ‘Absence of Malice,' where a woman runs from lawn to lawn trying to pick up the newspapers before a damaging story can be read, should play in all our heads before we take somebody down. Be a judge, but don't be God. Be fast, but not rushed. Be humble enough to admit a mistake, and be able to sleep at night with what you've written."

All good stuff, sound and true.

Red would have said the same things, only more gracefully.

Nor would he disagree with Albom's next thoughts: "Be in love with language, be respectful of its power and be in awe of its possibilities. Be prepared. Read everything. Study other writers. Remember that, as the saying goes, a writer's brain is like a magician's hat. If you want to pull something out of it, you have to put something into it first."

A columnist at the Free Press since 1985, Albom won the APSE's column-writing contest in the big-paper category 13 times before anyone else won it twice. He is more widely recognized for his writing outside sports; his website reports that his books have sold over 28 million copies, literally around the world, printed in 42 languages.

About here, you may wonder why any sportswriter would raise hell about the APSE giving its Red Smith Award to America's most famous sportswriter – especially when Albom chose that venue to puff out his chest for all of us: "Be proud of the sports section – it's as real as any section in the paper, and it's the most  read.. . . ." The award is decided by a vote of previous winners (I'm one) and past presidents of the APSE; clearly, Albom had pleased most of the voters (if not all). One past president of the APSE told me, "I have absolutely no problem with Mitch winning." Another, speaking of Albom's dominance of the column-writing contest, said, "Mitch should win it every (expletive deleted) year!"

Accepting the Smith award, Albom went on giving advice . . .

"And always, always, be mindful of who you are serving – not your ego, but your reader. I never spent much time in media hospitality suites because I saw the trap of comparing notes, trying to impress colleagues with who could write more viciously. I saw how quickly conversations degenerated into complaint sessions and where I lived, cynicism was the wrong approach. The reader of Detroit, the guys on the assembly lines, the grandfathers in Alpena, wished every day they could trade places with me. If I turned cynic, how would that serve them? So I often kept a distance. I spent more time at events than in the office, more time in my community than in press boxes or media parties, and this may have cost me over the years. People who don't know you are often the quickest to speak about you, especially if you are blessed with some success."

Note to journalism students: at some level we're all in this for the ego, or we'd be doing dentistry in Darfur. Albom's level of ego involvement might be best measured by the "Official Mitch Albom Website" at Mitchalbom.com. It lists eight categories of Mitch Albom-centric availabilities: "Books. Journalism & Sports. Film & TV. Radio & Music. Theater. Service. Discussion. Bio."

So the denial of ego made me a little itchy, as did his take on hospitality suites. I suppose it's possible that a milquetoast hack could belly up to the hot dog tray, hear snarky cracks from the next guy over, and find himself transformed into a vampire of cynicism lusting for LeBron's blood. It's just never happened in my presence. That said, it's still the "old news," as my friend put it, that's the most bothersome.

In April of 2005, not long after tarring and feathering Jayson Blair, Albom was forced to write a note of apology to Free Press readers. He had committed a column in which he described events that never happened. Subsequently, he was suspended briefly while his newspaper did an in-house investigation. Four Free Press reporters worked through 600 Albom columns to determine if he made a habit of deceiving readers. The investigation reported "no pattern of deception." It did show Albom guilty of lifting quotes from other sources without attribution. One reporter told Editor & Publisher magazine that Albom not only lifted quotes, he changed them to livelier versions of their former selves.

All this began on April 1, 2005, the day before Michigan State's basketball team would play in the NCAA's Final Four. It was a Friday, the deadline for an Albom column that would run in the Sunday paper. He wrote about all the fun a kid's college years can be. Under the headline "Longing for Another Slice of Dorm Pizza," the column began: 
    ST. LOUIS – In the audience Saturday at the Final Four, among the 46,000 hoop junkies, sales executives, movie producers, parents, contest winners, beer guzzlers, hip-hop stars and lucky locals who knew somebody who knew somebody, there were two former stars for Michigan State, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson.
    They sat in the stands, in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma mater. They were teammates in the magical 2000 season, when the Spartans won it all. Both now play in the NBA, Richardson for Golden State, Cleaves for Seattle.
    And both made it a point to fly in from wherever they were in their professional schedule just to sit together Saturday. Richardson, who earns millions, flew by private plane. Cleaves, who's on his fourth team in five years, bought a ticket and flew commercial.

Trouble was, neither Cleaves nor Richardson made it to the game. Not in their MSU clothing. Not rooting for the dear old Spartans. Not by plane, train, or riverboat had they been delivered to St. Louis. They'd told Albom early in the week that they'd be there, then they changed their minds. 

That meant Albom had written as fact on Friday a Sunday column leading with events of Saturday that never happened.

Note to journalism students: This is known as fiction. It can get you expelled. 
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