MIKE BARNICLE'S DEMISE
Aug 31, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 48 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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.
I was reminded of this experience two months ago when the Boston Globe forced the resignation of columnist Patricia Smith, who was caught fabricating characters and events in her column. "Barnicle," I thought, "you're living on borrowed time." Later, my confidence that the noose was tightening around Barnicle's neck increased when I saw a Brill's Content article on the Smith affair. The article cited allegations that star columnist Barnicle had been making up characters and events for years.
The most egregious material in the article came from a seven-year-old Boston Magazine article, which had taken a couple of Barnicle's classic columns and through exhaustive research documented that the compelling characters portrayed by Barnicle did not exist. There was more. Barnicle had shamelessly cribbed columns by Chicago's Mike Royko -- after Royko publicly complained. Barnicle had even plagiarized a classic Christmas column from the legendary Jimmy Cannon.
It was mind-boggling that any newspaperman in post-Watergate America could get away with what Barnicle had been doing regularly for years. And not just get away with it -- Barnicle was revered in his profession. He was a star on Channel 5 in Boston. Had his own spot on MSNBC. He was the New England correspondent for PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer -- the show's much acclaimed vehicle to cast light on facts and views outside of Manhattan island and the Washington Beltway. For that matter, I had tried to put his voice in Reader's Digest.
Patricia Smith's firing, it turned out, did lead to heightened scrutiny in the Globe newsroom. And Barnicle's stuff finally hit even the Globe's lofty fan. In a reckless act that was to journalistic standards what Clinton's relations with Monica Lewinsky were to presidential decorum, Barnicle was caught lifting jokes from comedian George Carlin's current bestseller -- and passing them off as his own. Initially, the Globe suspended Barnicle for a month after he swore that he hadn't gotten the jokes from the Carlin book -- he'd never even read the book. He got the lines from a bartender.
Within hours, local television was playing a tape of Barnicle holding up Carlin's book to viewers recommending it for summer reading. Even the Globe had had enough. On August 5, editor Matthew Storin demanded Barnicle's resignation. But as Storin would quickly learn, it's not easy to fire an icon.
You can make the case that the American media loved Mike Barnicle because, for all his posturing about being the voice of the common man, he found ways to serve up liberal stew in ways designed to make it palatable to the masses. He knew, for starters, how to dish punishment to conservatives. During the New Hampshire primary in 1996, he called Texas senator Phil Gramm "a thoroughly repulsive human being." Of Steve Forbes, he wrote: "Just watching him, it is not beyond the realm of imagination that somebody, someday, is going to show up and demand an answer as to why Forbes wanted to take nude photographs of the 1992 New Jersey Little League championship team."
But his skills went beyond invective. Last week, the New York Times described the source of Barnicle's clout this way: "He had a strong voice, resonant to blue-collar readers even when he was taking liberal positions they despised. As recounted in the book Common Ground, in the midst of the anti-busing rage in 1974 he urged Senator Edward Kennedy to speak to angry demonstrators, 'You could tell them, Senator, that law knows no neighborhood; that justice is not confined to any one block, that fear must be put aside and the fact of law adhered to.'"
In the Times piece, former Globe editor Michael Janeway said Barnicle's crowning achievement was "papering over busing's wound. . . . The symbolic importance of someone like Barnicle became outsized." In other words, so outsized that he could get by with fabrications and plagiarism that would have destroyed the careers of other journalists bound by the profession's traditional codes of integrity.
And it was with the help of his media friends that what should have been Barnicle's darkest hour would become seemingly one of his greatest triumphs. Within hours of Storin's demand that the columnist resign, Barnicle mounted a masterful campaign for survival. He'd never read the Carlin book, he explained. Everyone knows journalists recommend books they haven't read.
He blitzed Boston television and the network morning shows, claiming his voice was being unfairly silenced. Quickly he was joined by such media giants as ABC's Ted Koppel and NBC's Tim Russert, urging the Globe to take him back. He even managed, perversely, to turn the Patricia Smith firing into a defense. Because her backers clamored for Barnicle's firing -- on grounds that a white male member of the old boy's club should be treated just as the black female had been -- his defenders said that it would be unfair to fire Barnicle for a lesser offense just to offer a politically correct appearance of evenhandedness.
But Barnicle's biggest score came on Don Imus's nationally syndicated radio and MSNBC television program. In a pathetic voice, he pleaded for support: "I'd like to tell you a story. It's a story about sleepless nights. It's a story about TV crews in the driveway at midnight and coming back at 5:30 in the morning, and ringing your doorbell at 20 minutes of six, and waking up a five-year-old. It's a story about me, it's a story about 1998, it's a story that I would write in a column if I still had a column."
Imus declared that Barnicle was welcome on his show any time he wanted, and he then urged his listeners to bombard the Globe with demands that Barnicle be reinstated. Immediately. He gave the publisher's phone number. What followed must have been a massive disruption that even Mike Barnicle could not have embellished. Staples, the office-supply company, even threatened to pull its advertising if Barnicle's column was not restored.
Channel 5 welcomed back Barnicle as if nothing had happened. Storin and Globe publisher Benjamin Taylor called a press conference to announce Barnicle's reinstatement -- following a two-month suspension. Barnicle stood with them apologizing profusely -- for the Carlin incident. Like Bill Clinton, it seemed Mike Barnicle could get away with anything.
For weeks I waited for the massive weight of evidence that Barnicle was a fraud and a thief to bring him down. Ironically, it was my son, Will, the same kid whose experiences at Sloan-Kettering had so drawn me to that Barnicle column, who first suggested I write about my experience.
The rest, as they say, is history. Events moved so fast that I got scooped by my own story.
On Monday, August 17, I faxed Storin a note explaining how we had discovered the column to be a fabrication and asking his help in confronting Barnicle. Much to my surprise, Storin offered his cooperation. I explained I had a Thursday deadline from my editors at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
Storin turned my material over to assistant managing editor Walter Robinson, the respected newspaper veteran who had unearthed the Patricia Smith fraud. Robinson explained that he had been assigned the task of editing Barnicle when he returned from suspension. It seems his first job was to confront Barnicle with my questions. Over the course of the next two days I had repeated conversations with Robinson. Later he explained what had occurred between himself and the columnist.
At first Barnicle said he couldn't remember the column. He asked for time to collect his thoughts. Robinson called him again. This time Barnicle said he had heard the story from a nurse he had met with a friend in a South Boston bar.
Had the nurse met the boys and their parents at Children's Hospital?
No, she worked at another hospital where the Connecticut boy had later been a patient.
Did Barnicle talk with the parents before doing the column?
No, he got all the details from the nurse.
How did he obtain the poignant quotes from the mother and father of the black boy -- the vivid account of the mother opening the letter and hearing her son sing and the line from the father saying, "There really is a God"?
Barnicle said he got it from the nurse (in the South Boston bar), who got it from the Connecticut woman, who was told these things by the mother of the black child who had died of cancer.
Had he confirmed any of this with the parents?
No, he hadn't talked with the parents. He didn't know the names of the parents. And the couldn't remember the name of the nurse.
Robinson asked Barnicle how he could do a column with precise quotes and vivid description based on a nurse in a bar who had heard the story.
Barnicle replied, "That's the way I do it."
During all this, Robinson called to ask if I had any documents from our research in 1995 to back up my claim that Barnicle had assured our researcher that he had spoken with both sets of parents. I faxed Robinson a copy of a 1995 memo by Digest research director Deirdre Casper, in which she wrote: "Barnicle did call me back but explained in no uncertain terms that he would not reveal the names of those involved. . . . I asked him if he's spoken to both sets of parents -- he said he had. I asked if all details of the story were accurately depicted, or had he changed some/all to protect identities. All real, he said."
Once confronted with the facts, Barnicle agreed to resign.
With the Globe announcement that my query of Storin had set in motion events that led to Barnicle's resignation, I was besieged with media calls. That evening as a Boston camera crew wired me for an interview on our farm 50 miles west of Washington, I wondered aloud if Barnicle's resignation in disgrace would end his career in journalism.
"I wouldn't bet on that," quipped a cameraman. "By tomorrow Barnicle will be vowing he didn't make up the column, and he'll be back in the business."
Later that night, on MSNBC, Brian Williams interviewed Barnicle, who was in Hyannisport. Sure enough, Barnicle was vowing he didn't make up any column. He got the story from a nurse, and he believed her.
I looked up at the clock and saw that it was just past midnight. I went to bed. MSNBC went back to round-the-clock coverage of Bill Clinton.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who served as director of the Voice of America in the Reagan administration, retired as editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest in 1996. He lives on a farm in Fauquier County, Virginia.