The Magazine


Aug 31, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 48 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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The column was a magazine editor's dream. Mike Barnicle told the story of the friendship of two boys, forged out of a mutual love of baseball, in the cancer section of Boston's Children's Hospital. "And on those dreamy summer nights when the Olde Towne Team was home, the two of them would sit by a window on an upper floor in a hospital ward and listen to games on the radio as they looked at the lights of the ballpark off in the distance, washing across the July sky like some brilliant Milky Way all their own."

The parents -- one couple white and trust-fund wealthy from Connecticut, the other black and apparently from Boston -- became friends, too, a friendship deepened when the black couple presented the boys with Red Sox jackets and two baseballs signed by Mo Vaughn.

Soon the hopes of those days would be silenced. The father of the black child had lost his job -- "laid off by one of those high-tech companies that survives only by 'downsizing,' a '90s word for unemployment, the type of management move that has brought economic death-sentences to so many households. And so it was that the [black child] died on a crisp fall day when his favorite game had long fallen silent from a strike. The combination of hospitalization and unemployment had nearly bankrupted the family, yet they had to fight on for their three surviving children. . . ."

One day, as foreclosure loomed over them, the Boston couple received a beautiful letter from the Connecticut family, recalling with great emotion those nights spent together at Children's Hospital. They explained that nurses had told them of the couple's plight. Enclosed was a check for $ 10,000.

With vivid detail, Barnicle described how the mother "lifted her head toward the perfect sky and, for a moment, she could hear her son singing his favorite song." She telephoned her husband, "and slowly, savoring each word," she read him the letter. "When she finished, neither said anything for a long time until, finally, the husband declared: 'There really is a God.'"

Now, my reaction may have been conditioned by memories of similar friendships from days when my son was a patient at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. But I wept when I read the Barnicle column. I also designated it the lead article for the January 1996 issue of Reader's Digest, where I was editor-in-chief. As I said, it was a magazine editor's dream.

The first sign of trouble came when Barnicle would not return calls placed by the Digest researcher assigned to check the facts in the story. When Barnicle finally did call, he asserted that all the details of the column were accurately depicted. He had spoken to both parents. All the details were accurate. All real. Even after the researcher assured him that we would preserve the privacy of these families -- that we only needed to talk with them to verify facts in his column -- Barnicle steadfastly refused to provide their names.

The Digest fact-checking process can be a pain for the stars of journalism, but the (costly) tradition is rooted in some unfortunate experiences from years gone by, when the magazine's founder DeWitt Wallace discovered even big-name writers were capable of cynically churning out fiction clothed as journalism.

But at this point, I had no idea that Mike Barnicle could make up a story about a kid dying of cancer and the wondrous things that came from his struggle. Surely Barnicle was just being a prima donna. So I turned to a research supervisor and asked her to go around Barnicle and confirm the essential facts through the staff at Children's Hospital.

She got great cooperation from the hospital. Everyone wanted to help because they all had read the Barnicle column and had been deeply touched. Only trouble was, no one associated with cancer treatment at Children's Hospital had ever seen anything like the events portrayed in the Barnicle column. A supervisor checked with nurses on all the shifts. She asked doctors, but no luck. Meanwhile, Digest researchers doggedly sought to unearth leads at the American Cancer Society in Connecticut and Massachusetts and the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation. To no avail.

Finally, it dawned on even me that the column was a fabrication. Barnicle's deeply moving column was nothing but a cheap piece of pulp fiction. We killed the piece.