This may destroy any cred I've built up ... but one of the most formative books I read in my sports journalism career was "Fab Five" by Mitch Albom. It's his book about the Michigan basketball team led by Chris Webber, and it's one I read so often in high school and, I wore out the binding. Parts of that book are still noteworthy. Albom's attention to detail in his writing is impeccable. Details are what make a great feature story, and this book is a wonderful example of that.
But here's the thing - the book glosses over the fact that Webber and his teammates basically violated the NBA salary cap while at Michigan. There's a famous anecdote in the book about how Webber had to send food back at a restaurant, then looked across the street and saw his jersey for sale and marveled at how unfair that was.
All this came back this week, when the kerfuffle erupted over Albom winning the APSE's Red Smith Award for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence. Dave Kindred, one of the all-time greats, wrote a smack-down on sportsjournalists.org. Charles Pierce followed, and then Deadspin and Jason Whitlock torched the place. The main controversy is, of course, that in 2005, Albom wrote a column about Michigan State basketball players watching their alma mater at the Final Four. Turns out, they weren't there (they planned to, told Albom this, he wrote on an early deadline, they ditched). So he wrote, as fact, something that didn't happen. He wrote it as though he saw what was happening. He wrote fiction.
Thoughts: - Albom is an insanely talented writer. That is impossible to deny. That being said, I stopped being a fan of his around his second book. So much of his work is, in the words of Barry from High Fidelity, "sentimental, tacky crap." He's the sports writing version of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You." - What he did at the 2005 Final Four was wrong. 146 types of wrong. You don't write that something happened if you don't know it happened. That's journalism 101. Insert the word planned, scheduled to into your copy. It may be slightly less lyrical, but it's 200 percent more accurate, and that's what matters in our biz. The fact that he was writing for an insanely early deadline, or that none of the editors had the guts/ability to stand up to their superstar columnist is irrelevant. - The galling part of Albom's speech wasn't anything about accuracy. It was the notion that he didn't socialize in the press tent because he was out there doing journalism work for the workers back home whom he wrote for.
"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."
To quote a great man, gag unto me with a spoon. For one thing, there's nothing I hate more than someone invoking the working class to justify their own decisions. Second ... I've heard enough stories from people I like and respect describing Albom as a bad guy, a superstar with an ego to match. It costs nothing to be a nice guy, and to be a dick and cloak in doing "journalism for the working man" is nauseating. - As for Whitlock's take on the state of the industry ... that gets its own post.
What's everyone else think?