Should He Stay Or Should He Go?
| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, September 1998|
Should He Stay Or Should He Go?
The Boston Globe's wavering response to Mike Barnicle's plagiarism.
By Sinéad OBrien
Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.
It was the last thing the Boston Globe needed. Still recovering from the trauma of star columnist Patricia Smith 's fabrications, it found itself engulfed by an ethics controversy swirling around another star columnist, Mike Barnicle , Beantown's voice of the working class. Barnicle, it seemed, had written a column featuring someone else's material, without attributing it.
Talk about a classic no-win situation. The paper had been accused of racism for seeking--and obtaining--the resignation of Smith, who is black, after it determined that she had made up characters in her columns. Critics cited the fact that Barnicle had been spared a similar fate when doubts arose years before about his work.
The Globe's response to its latest crisis wasn't, as someone wrote on a journalism listserv, ``covered with smooth." First, the paper suspended Barnicle; then it demanded his resignation. But Barnicle wouldn't quit, waging a very public campaign to keep his job. His vociferous fans rallied behind him, and by the time the unusual face-off ended, the Globe had caved, suspending the columnist without pay for two months.
In the aftermath, the Globe was once again facing accusations of employing a double standard. Angry staffers circulated a petition protesting management's handling of the affair. But some ethics experts applauded the decision, asserting that there was a major distinction between Barnicle's lapse and outright fabrication.
The decision to seek Barnicle's resignation was made by Editor Matthew V. Storin , who was vacationing in Italy when the controversy erupted August 5. But rather than quit, Barnicle pleaded his case with Publisher Benjamin B. Taylor on August 7, then huddled with Storin three days later after the editor returned. On August 11, Barnicle was suspended. He agreed to limit his work outside the paper and apologized to his bosses and colleagues.
``Though there were clear offenses here and violations of professional standards in my opinion," Storin said, ``I did not feel that if it came to a question of termination for Mike Barnicle that the punishment fit the crime."
The ``crime," which dominated local news and received much national coverage, was this: In his August 2 column ``I Was Just Thinking," some of Barnicle's sarcastic ruminations echoed jokes in comedian George Carlin 's book ``Brain Droppings." The columnist claimed he hadn't read the book; rather, he had received the material from a bartender. The Globe's initial response was to suspend the columnist for a month without pay.
But when WCVB aired a clip of Barnicle touting Carlin's bestseller, all bets were off--Storin wanted him gone. ``It is clear," the editor said, ``that he misrepresented himself either to his television audience or his editors. This contradiction is unacceptable."
But Barnicle, a 25-year Globe veteran, mounted a counteroffensive, arguing his case everywhere from Don Imus ' radio show to NBC 's ``Today." ``You can accuse me of sloppiness and I plead guilty," he said. ``Intellectual laziness. I plead guilty. Plagiarism. No."
When the controversy first flared, Globe Managing Editor News/Operations Thomas Mulvoy and Managing Editor Gregory Moore called the boss in Europe. ``Obviously, all I knew was what I was being told," Storin says. ``You could or you couldn't fault the information they gave. But they didn't have to talk me into it."
Publisher Taylor is quick to note that Storin wasn't acting alone when he asked Barnicle to leave. ``I supported Matt when we made the initial request," he says. But not everyone sees a Taylor-Storin united front. One Globe staffer told the rival Boston Herald, ``The perception is that Barnicle and Ben [Taylor] won and Storin lost."
The saga's denouement gave a disgruntled staff a rare opportunity to vent years of frustration at a meeting with Barnicle. They asked why he often belittled fellow writers. They grilled him on the questionable content of some columns. Some accused him of being aloof, ignoring colleagues and failing to respond to e-mail messages.
Barnicle replied, ``I apologize to each and every one of you collectively. And if I could, I would apologize to each and every one of you individually for having put the place where you work...into such a tough light."
Underlying the hostility is a pervasive feeling among Globe staffers that, while his transgression was not comparable to Smith's, Barnicle nonetheless was the beneficiary of special treatment. Taylor bristles at this notion. ``I don't believe there is one standard for Mike Barnicle and one standard for anyone else," he says. ``The answer is that we try to apply rigorous standards to everyone."
But not everyone is buying this. Leonard Alkins , president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, called on the Globe to reinstate Smith. Vanessa Williams , president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a Washington Post reporter, said it was ``intellectually dishonest" to distinguish between fabrication and plagiarism.
Some media critics say the paper did the right thing. ``I think the Globe made an extremely difficult decision, but I think it was the right decision," says Marvin Kalb , director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.
But Steve Geimann , chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee, is bothered by the paper's waffling. ``They should have deferred any decision rather than make three," he says. ``The leadership at the newspaper seems confused."
As if the debate over the borrowed jokes wasn't enough, questions arose about a Barnicle column on the deaths of three black girls that appeared just two days after the ``I Was Just Thinking" column. But Storin says he's satisfied there's no problem.
Nevertheless, when Barnicle returns to work in October, he will ``face closer supervision," according to the Globe. Storin says the columnist will be assigned a new editor, someone ``who's here from 9 a.m. to talk to during the day.... We're talking about guidance."
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