Secrets And Lies  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1998

Secrets And Lies   

Strong indications that Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith was making up material had surfaced before the fabrications that led to her downfall, but the paper decided not to confront her.

By Sinéad OBrien
Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

Related reading:
   » For Barnicle, One Controversy Too Many
   » The World of Voice Mail
   » Semantics
   » Speeding Past Red Flags


HERE'S HOW THE MONITORING SYSTEM was supposed to work: The editor overseeing each columnist would be responsible for making sure his or her work was truthful.
The pairings, chosen by Storin, ultimately followed racial lines. McNamara and her editor, Donovan, are white women. Managing Editor/News Operations Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr. edits Barnicle; both are white men. After Robinson stopped overseeing local news in October 1996 (he remains an assistant managing editor at the paper), Managing Editor Greg Moore took over the responsibility for editing Smith. Moore and Smith are black. ``It's an unfortunate coincidence,'' Storin says.
The columnists were instructed to give the editors details about the identity of significant figures in their columns. ``We were going to require [Smith] give passport-level ID,'' Storin says. Columnists were told that periodically the information might be checked, but not all the time.
(Asked if the paper has a similar process for checking the veracity of its reporters' work, Moore scoffs, ``We have about 275 reporters here. If we did that, we wouldn't be able to put out a paper.'' If a reporter required such monitoring, he adds, ``that's someone we can't trust.'')
The editors admit the system didn't work. Mulvoy was quoted in a Globe article as saying that he asked Barnicle for names and phone numbers about a dozen times, then eased off. Donovan says she didn't have to check McNamara's work; her columns had easily identifiable people that no one would question.
When Moore began editing Smith in late 1996, he asked her for notes about people in the columns but didn't try to track them down. By that time, he says, the process had been in effect for months. He assumed that by then she'd gotten the picture, and he accepted the notes as sufficient proof that the characters she wrote about were real.
But even had he fact-checked her work, the system had a major loophole. Smith's columns appeared on Monday and Friday. Moore doesn't work on Sunday, the day Smith's Monday column was edited. This means half of Smith's columns were edited by other senior editors. Moore, like the Globe's readers, first saw Smith's Monday columns when he picked up the newspaper.
And because the suspicions about Smith were kept secret among top editors, those handling her columns each Sunday had no idea that they shouldn't take too much for granted.
In fact, the column that attracted Robinson's attention the second time ran on a Monday, May 11 of this year. It focused on a cancer victim named Claire, who had just learned about cancer therapies tested in mice. She was quoted as saying, ``I'm not proud. Right away, I said, `Rub it on my skin, pop it to me in a pill, shoot me up with it.' If I could find a way to steal it, I would. Hell, if I could get my hands on it, I'd swallow the whole...mouse.''
Moore says, ``Clearly some columns, in retrospect, like [the one quoting] `Claire'...were quite cute, a little too formulated.'' He says it's unfair to ask if he would have flagged that particular column had he been its editor, but ``my hope is that she wouldn't have submitted that to me.'' It wasn't questioned by that day's editor, Deputy Managing Editor/Features Mary Jane Wilkinson. She had no reason to second-guess Smith's work, not knowing about past red flags.
Once the column appeared, Robinson's suspicions were aroused again. And again it was Robinson who made a move.
This time he approached Donovan alone. ``We had a conversation earlyish in May and he told me about his concerns,'' Donovan says. ``We agreed he would do preliminary checking.''
Robinson, this time turning to voter registration, telephone and Registry of Motor Vehicles databases, had the same experience he had before: People could not be found. But now there was a difference: This time he could prove they were bogus. Smith had cited people with occupations that require licensing and therefore should be able to be tracked down, like the fictitious cosmetologist Janine Byrne. When they couldn't be located, the game was over.
But it was three weeks before the paper's editor was notified that Smith, once again, was under scrutiny, and that, once again, the findings were bleak. ``That's the result of people being busy,'' Donovan says, noting that from May 11, the day the column about ``Claire'' appeared, to Smith's resignation on June 18, many key players weren't around.
Donovan didn't tell Storin about the situation until early June. For one thing, she waited until Robinson's investigation made it clear there was a problem. ``It takes time to do that research. Other things are going on,'' Storin says. ``They just decided to see if something was there before they told me.'' After that, Donovan, Storin and Robinson were all out of the office at various times, making it difficult for the three of them to get together. Meanwhile, Smith was away for 10 days attending a poetry slam and the editors didn't want to discuss the matter with her over the phone, Donovan says.
Eight more of Smith's columns ran between the time the suspicions surfaced and Moore confronted her on June 17. Unaware that her bosses were on to her, Smith wrote three columns with people the paper can't find and believes to be fictitious.
Why didn't the paper take some interim action as it investigated the situation? Donovan says her main concern was columns that already had appeared.
Once the paper determined in June that a star columnist had made up some of her colorful characters, Storin delivered the bad news to the staff. Meanwhile, Moore took Smith to lunch. The meeting ended when, after Moore asked her to verify the existence of six questionable people in her columns, Smith admitted four were figments of her imagination.
``Anytime you put your trust in someone and it's abused and violated, you feel personally bad,'' Moore says. By admitting the fabrications--Smith later alluded to more in her farewell column--she had sealed her fate. Storin asked for her resignation rather than firing her because her contract provided more benefits that way. ``It was the humane thing to do,'' he says.
Did the paper deal aggressively enough with strong indications that one of its columnists was making things up? ``I would suggest that the blame really falls on Patricia Smith,'' Globe Publisher Benjamin B. Taylor says. ``She's the one who violated readers' trust and the newspaper's trust placed in her.'' He learned about the decision to ask for Smith's resignation the day before she quit. Says Taylor, ``I think Matt's handled the thing well.''

ONCE THE PAPER DECIDED IT HAD TO let one of its leading writers go, it had to explain why. ``We have great responsibility to our reading public,'' Storin says. ``We owe it to our readers to come clean.''
But did it in fact come entirely clean in its early coverage? ``In a way this was a test of whether we could be as grueling on ourselves in print as we are on companies like Raytheon or Blue Cross and Blue Shield when those companies have suffered some embarrassments,'' says Sarah Snyder, an assistant Metro editor. ``I don't know if we were as tough. A reader would have to judge that.''
Globe media writer Mark Jurkowitz wrote the first-day story, which focused on Smith's resignation, citing the four 1998 columns that she had admitted fabricating.
The Friday, June 19, piece said, ``The paper began monitoring Metro columns for accuracy several years ago in response to concerns about veracity.'' Storin is quoted as saying, ``People would bring up Barnicle, a couple of people brought her [Smith] up. I just decided we didn't have a system'' for checking the columns. The article also said that each columnist was informed about the ``rules of the road'' they would have to follow. As for Smith, it says, ``Several weeks ago, top editors became concerned about of number of `troubling' quotations'' in her work.
A press release issued by Globe spokesman Richard P. Gulla said, ``The fabrications were discovered two weeks ago by Globe editors in the normal course of monitoring by senior editors of columns.'' It goes on to describe the process that had been set up and says, ``This problem was discovered as part of that process.''
Of course, the phony columns weren't uncovered by the long-discontinued system; they were flagged by Robinson. But Robinson was noticeably absent from the first article. He was out of the country at the time, which might account for why he wasn't interviewed. But his role in the saga was not just downplayed, it was eliminated.
That the press release, which Gulla says was reviewed by the publisher and editor, misrepresents how the fabrications were discovered, and by whom, is nit-picking, according to Storin. ``You could split hairs that monitoring or Greg [Moore] didn't turn it up and it took Walter's [Robinson] surveillance to detect it,'' Storin says. ``But it was an internal thing by editors at one time responsible.''
Jurkowitz says he was told to cover the story like any other and received no special instructions, but adds, ``I can only report what I'm told.'' He says in the course of reporting that first day, no one mentioned the previous suspicions about Smith and Robinson's subsequent investigation.
Jurkowitz's second story, on June 21, had a fuller account. But sandwiched in between was Kate Zernike's story on the 20th, which detailed lawyer Dershowitz's charge that the paper hadn't been fair to Smith. He charged the Globe with practicing a double standard ``based on race, gender and ethnicity'' because it ousted Smith but hadn't gotten rid of Barnicle.
Storin says that Jurkowitz's more complete June 21 story was not prompted by Dershowitz's claims. He also says the 1995 events weren't left out of the initial story by design. ``In all honesty, I had not thought about '95 at the time. We did say we set up this monitoring system,'' Storin says. ``The important thing is, even if it took until Sunday, that we did it.''
Moore, who co-edited the first story and edited the Sunday piece, says, ``I think we realized Friday's story was incomplete, and we had to go much deeper.''
It did go deeper. The second story, contradicting the first, revealed that it was Robinson, not the system, who caught Smith. Robinson was also quoted extensively in the follow-up. Globe staffers learned about the saga just before Globe readers did. When Storin called an emergency staff meeting on June 18 to announce the news, ``Nobody was even close to suspecting what it was,'' says statehouse reporter Adrian Walker.
Many staffers are reluctant to discuss on the record their feelings about the affair. But dissatisfaction with the way the Globe first reported the story and the fact that it had kept previous concerns about Smith quiet is palpable.
``I know nothing more than any other reporter or editor watching the thing unfold,'' Snyder says. ``All I can describe are the questions newsroom people were asking each other at the time, which included, `If some possible fabrication concerns were a concern two years ago, why wasn't she hyper-edited, by whoever was her line editor, after that?'
``At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, I don't think a newspaper, or any other business for that matter, risks having problems as long as they're willing to admit screw-ups and then plow on,'' she adds. ``The more questions answered by Globe brass, the faster staffers are willing to put it behind them.''
In the wake of the revelations, at a regular meeting of top editors and managers, Storin urged the staff to move on. Someone at the meeting said it seemed as if the editors considered the issue a ``dead horse''--in effect, they wanted people to stop flogging it.
In addition to questions about how it dealt with Smith from the start, editors faced questions about their decision to nominate the columnist for a Pulitzer Prize and an American Society of Newspaper Editors writing award despite past suspicions about the veracity of her work.
Smith won the ASNE award in 1998. When the news of her fabrications broke, ASNE rescinded the award. As for the nomination for a 1998 Pulitzer, no one's memory about how it came about is clear. One thing everybody is sure about, though: The final decision was Storin's.
Donovan says a group of senior editors met several times to discuss Pulitzer nominations, but ``we didn't have a group discussion'' about Smith. Early in the process, she says, some people did talk in a general way about past doubts about the columnist. ``But after it was decided [to nominate Smith], we didn't talk about it,'' she says. The editors assumed the situation had been cleared up, Donovan says, and if there had been any lingering concerns, ``she wouldn't have been nominated.''
Storin says Donovan and Moore were the only other editors involved in the Pulitzer discussions who knew about the past questions.
When the editors decided to submit Smith's work, columnist McNamara, a 1997 Pulitzer winner, approached Donovan to express her concern that Smith had made up elements of her work, according to the executive editor. Although she says McNamara's concern was ``completely legitimate,'' Donovan didn't go to Storin on behalf of the columnist.
On June 25, Storin wrote a contrite letter to the members of the Pulitzer board. He opened with the obvious question: ``Why, given her history, was Patricia Smith submitted for the Pulitzer Prize and ASNE Writing Award?'' He admitted speaking with her in early 1996--when he delivered the famous ``rules of the road'' speech. He added, ``Though we had evidence, I felt it was possible that she did not understand that even in columns of this type, that was absolutely verboten. I made that clear in my January 1996 conversation.''
He went on to plead guilty ``to the charge of unjustified ignorance or naivete'' for thinking ``she was clean after January 1996.''
``I have my faults,'' he wrote, ``but I am not so stupid as to submit for a Pulitzer someone who I think could be exposed as a cheat.''

IN ACCUSING THE GLOBE OF EMPLOYING a double standard by ousting Smith after it had failed to take strong action against Barnicle, celebrity lawyer and Harvard law professor Dershowitz injected the unmentionable into the Smith saga: race. Despite an obvious reluctance by many to broach the subject on the record, the question of race has never been far beneath the surface.
Some inside and outside the Globe feel Smith's race played a role in her rapid ascent at the paper and what they consider management's failure to deal more sternly with the first wave of evidence of fabrication. Others feel equally strongly that the paper's decision to make her resign and its voluminous coverage of the tumultuous aftermath were overly harsh. Some, like Dershowitz, see racism as a factor.
In a letter to the Globe in July, a group of 20 black women complained about the extensive coverage of the Smith affair. They assailed it as an ``ugly, vindictive campaign...to obliterate the columnist's otherwise stellar record of achievement as a journalist.'' Smith's lawyer, John T. Williams, objected to the notion that Smith had risen because of her race.
McNamara tackled the issue head-on in a column. Rejecting Dershowitz's charge that Smith was the victim of a double standard, she wrote, ``To the contrary, she was the beneficiary of one. Her fall had nothing to do with her race; her rise had everything to do with it.... It was the worst sort of racism that kept us from confronting the fraud we long suspected. If we did ask, and she did tell, we might lose her, and where would we be then? Where would we find an honest black woman columnist who wrote with such power and grace?''
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, praises the Globe for its extensive coverage since June. ``I think the Globe is distinguished from some others, because it represents stricter standards than the press has had in the past,'' he says.
The coverage, he adds, touched off an essential disscussion in the community. ``It was about trust with a capital T,'' he says. ``It was also about race, feminism, class, Irish vs. everyone else.''
As for those who claim the Globe's response smacks of racism, Rosenstiel says, ``Talk about shooting the messenger. The Globe's not wrecking a reputation; making things up wrecks a reputation.''

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