The Magazine

MIKE BARNICLE'S DEMISE

Aug 31, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 48 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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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.