From AJR, September 1998 issue
For Barnicle, One Controversy Too Many
By Sinéad OBrien MIKE BARNICLE 's luck had finally run out.
Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.
For years the popular Boston Globe columnist, the voice of the city's working class, had been dogged by suspicions that he was making up material. A local magazine for a time ran a regular feature titled ``Unbelievably Barnicle" that raised questions about the truthfulness of his work. But Boston Mike's career did nothing but flourish.
In early August, he exhibited survival skills worthy of President Clinton when he faced down his boss, who had asked him to resign after Barnicle wrote a column containing, without attribution, someone else's material.
The paper's indecisive handling of the incident and the ultimate punishment (a two-month suspension) outraged many Globe staffers, who bridled at what they saw as special treatment for Barnicle. Particularly galling for many inside and outside of the paper, including members of the black community, was the contrast to the fate of award-winning columnist Patricia Smith. Smith, who is black, was asked to resign in June, and did so, after she admitted fabricating material.
But Barnicle's reprieve was short-lived. On August 19, eight days after his suspension had been announced, Editor Matthew V. Storin told the whipsawed Globe staff that yet another Barnicle column had been called into question. Once again he had been asked to resign. And this time, he had.
And that's good news for the newspaper, says Steve Geimann, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee. ``His departure will allow the Globe to rehabilitate its credibility after executives waffled and weakened over appropriate disciplinary action for earlier lapses in professionalism," Geimann says.
Barnicle's 25-year Globe career was terminated by a blast from the past, an October 8, 1995, column about two young cancer patients said to have become friends at a hospital the year before. One of the children died. The parents of the other child, a wealthy couple from Connecticut, remembered the dead youth by sending his family a $10,000 check. (Ironically, the doubts that led to the discovery of Smith's fabrications were triggered by a column about a cancer victim.)
Barnicle's column was very moving, and editors at Reader's Digest wanted to reprint it. One problem: When its fact-checkers tried to confirm the story, they came up empty. The episode never surfaced--that is, until nearly three years later, when controversy flared over the column in which Barnicle used jokes that had previously appeared in a book by comedian George Carlin.
On August 18, Storin said, he received a letter from Kenneth Tomlinson, the retired editor in chief of Reader's Digest. Tomlinson, according to Storin, said his staff ``had been unable to confirm any part" of the Barnicle column about the cancer victims. Tomlinson had concluded the column was ``a fabrication."
When Barnicle was confronted by Assistant Managing Editor Walter Robinson, whose suspicions and subsequent investigation led to Smith's downfall, he said he had heard the story from a nurse at another hospital. Barnicle could not name the nurse, or any of the parents, even though he had quoted one set of parents as well as a letter written by the other. In the previous controversy, Storin had suspended Barnicle for a month; then asked for his resignation; then, after the columnist mounted a vigorous, very public campaign to save his job, meted out the two-month suspension without pay.
This time there was no wavering.
``In light of his failure to follow the most basic reporting requirements as well as the duplicitous way in which the story was written," Storin said, ``it is clear that Mike Barnicle can no longer write for the Boston Globe."
Barnicle, 54, said he was leaving the Globe because he thought it would be ``the best thing for the paper." But he said in an interview with MSNBC that he still believed the column that led to his undoing was true.
As if to put an exclamation point on the unhappy affair, the Boston Phoenix reported that Barnicle had borrowed material from the legendary A.J. Liebling in a 1986 column.
The Barnicle brouhaha began with his August 2 column, ``I Was Just Thinking." Some of the sarcastic ruminations in the piece echoed material in 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 response was to suspend him 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," said the editor, who was vacationing in Italy at the time, ``that he misrepresented himself either to his television audience or his editors. This contradiction is unacceptable."
But Barnicle refused to go quietly, arguing his case on every media outlet 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."
Barnicle met with Publisher Benjamin B. Taylor on August 7 and with Storin three days later after the editor returned from Europe. In announcing his change of heart, Storin said, ``Though there were clear offenses here and violations of professional standards in my opinion, I did not feel that if it came to a question of termination for Mike Barnicle that the punishment fit the crime."
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 apologized. Unmoved, 50 Globe staffers signed a petition protesting the paper's handling of the situation. But soon the issue was moot.
``Mike Barnicle is a very talented writer who became an important voice in Boston," Storin said. But, he added, ``He was also controversial, and his practices were challenged on occasion by outside critics and also by his editors, though, in the latter case, clearly not well enough."
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