MIKE BARNICLE'S DEMISE
Aug 31, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 48 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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.