Why he should have been fired -- and why he wasn't
by Dan Kennedy
It was nearly lost amid the apologies and explanations, the questions about
ethics and double standards and who's-really-in-charge that dominated
Tuesday's extraordinary news conference at the Boston Globe. But
Mike Barnicle, who is reportedly paid more than $200,000 annually to write
three 700-word columns a week, actually got up and promised to stop being lazy.
"Most of the people here work harder than I do," he said, an admission to
which anyone who's read more than a handful of his columns would readily
attest. He made a lame joke about doing more reporting during his week in limbo
than he has in his column recently. He promised to cut back on his outside
work, including Channel 5's Chronicle, the show that got him in so much
trouble. And he and editor Matt Storin said Barnicle would work more closely
with his editors in the future to avoid the kind of mess that nearly ended his
Well. Stockholders of the New York Times Company, which purchased the
Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993, must have been pleased to learn that one
of their more expensive assets is going to have to start putting in a full
day's work when he comes back from his two-month unpaid suspension. It should
also be interesting to see what the Sulzberger family, which owns the Times
Company, does on October 1, when the five-year contracts held by Storin,
publisher Ben Taylor, and other top Globe executives are believed to
expire. Knowledgeable sources say the Sulzbergers were probably pleased at
Storin's swift move in demanding his ethically challenged star columnist's
resignation last week. It's less clear how they'll react to Barnicle's return.
"We support the Globe's right to make its own decisions" is all Times
corporate spokeswoman Nancy Nielsen would say following Barnicle's rise from
the crypt. The Times' own page-one newsroom account of the Globe
flip-flop noted that support for Barnicle among the Globe's top editors
"seemed tinged with ambivalence."
Barnicle, Storin, and Taylor put the best face they could on a terrible
situation Tuesday. The columnist was reasonably contrite and apologetic, if you
overlook a snappish exchange with Boston magazine's Sean Flynn, who has
documented some of Barnicle's past transgressions. Taylor and Storin did
everything they could to make Barnicle's return look like Storin's idea, and
maybe it even was. But it was a far cry from the previous Wednesday, when
Storin said that Barnicle's "relationship with his readers and his employers
has become untenable" and Taylor added: "Credibility will always be our most
important asset." What happened between that evening and Tuesday can only be
guessed. Did Taylor cave? Did Storin come to regret his shoot-from-the-hip
judgment on Barnicle? Either way, they managed to make things worse.
Simply put, the Globe blew it by bringing Barnicle back. Here's a guy
who, by letting the Herald catch him cribbing lines from George
Carlin, humiliated the Globe just six weeks after it had forced Patricia
Smith to resign. Who, in the course of swearing to the paper's top officials
that he hadn't read Carlin's book, Brain Droppings, failed to tell them
a crucial fact: that he'd endorsed it on Chronicle two months earlier.
(That so infuriated Globe officials that they rescinded the one-month
suspension they'd just hit him with and demanded he resign.) And who still
hasn't offered a consistent or coherent story about how Carlin's one-liners
made their way from Brain Droppings to his column. From one friend or
two? By fax or by word of mouth? One if by land, two if by sea?
Understand this: despite his pose as a working-class hero from Fitchburg,
Barnicle and his wife, a top Fleet bank executive, live among the rich in the
super-exclusive suburb of Lincoln, summer with the Hyannis Port social set, and
hobnob with the political and business elite of Boston and Cambridge. After he
refused to resign, there was the distinct whiff of advertiser pressure in the
form of a letter from Staples CEO Tom Stemberg, in which he threatened to yank
his major advertising deal. There is also well-informed speculation that Jack
Connors, head of the Hill Holliday advertising agency and one of Boston's most
influential business leaders, may have intervened on Barnicle's behalf.
Mistake number one: letting the Herald get out in front of the story,
in contrast to the full disclosure the Globe provided in the Smith
incident. Mistake number two: taking action before all the facts were in.
Barnicle's departure could have brought to a close a year in which the
Globe has repeatedly come under fire (see "The Globe's Annus
Horribilis," below). Instead, observers outside 135 Morrissey Boulevard are
openly mocking the paper. (ABOUT FACE! the Herald blared Wednesday, in a
neat double entendre.) Insiders -- most of them, anyway -- are furious that
Barnicle has gotten away with it again, and despondent that the Globe
seems to have lost its way.
Serious people do not believe that what Barnicle did was as bad as what Smith
did when she made up characters and quotes in at least four of her columns. But
Barnicle's lapse last week should have been the last straw, the pretext needed
to end a 25-year career that has been marked by numerous instances of
borderline plagiarism, legal problems sparked by apparently egregious
misquotes, and, as with Smith, credible accusations that he's faked some of his
columns (see "Twenty-five Years of Trouble," left). It's not so much that he
copied Carlin as that he writes a lazy, second-rate column, using it to reward
his friends, punish his enemies, and bore the hell out of just about everyone
else. His screeds in defense of former FBI agent John Connolly, the proud
protector of mobsters James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi,
are so corrupt that the Globe should have spiked every one of them. It
is astounding that this miscreant, whose grasp of the truth is as slippery as
Bill Clinton's, has been able to flip the entire paper on its head.
Certainly not everyone at the Globe was displeased with Storin's
decision. Veterans such as David Nyhan and Paul Szep were reportedly happy. And
deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. says he supports Storin's reversal,
arguing that "in the final analysis, I think it was important not to let the
wrong decision stand." Noting that Storin gave Smith a second chance after she
was suspected of faking columns in 1995, Bradlee said it was fair to give
Barnicle a second chance as well. Yet Barnicle has been given numerous second
chances over the years.
In fact, Storin's denials notwithstanding, the decision to keep Barnicle has
all the earmarks of -- yes -- a double standard. Patricia Smith, a black woman,
was forced to pay a far higher price for ethical problems than a white man; in
this case, a well-connected white man who was able to call on such high-profile
friends as David Brudnoy, Tim Russert, and Don Imus in his hour of need.
Twenty-five years of trouble
Patricia Smith was forced to resign for consistently fictionalizing over a
concentrated period of time -- on four occasions in a little over a month this
spring, and perhaps as many as 48 other times going back to 1995.
Mike Barnicle's situation is different. Since joining the Globe in
1973, he has found himself in one professional misadventure after another.
During that time, he's played by his own set of rules, and he's gotten away
with it. Some highlights:
1973. Quotes a Roxbury gas-station owner as
calling his black neighbors "niggers." A judge rules that Barnicle made it up,
and the Globe pays a $40,000 award.
1979. Takes a leave of absence to report on Cambodia. Writes a piece for
Hearst's Los Angeles Herald Examiner that is syndicated on the front
page of the Globe's competition: Hearst's Boston Herald American.
1984. Goes to editor Tom Winship, says he wants to leave Channel 5's
Chronicle to put more time into his column, and asks for big raise. Gets
it, then refuses to leave Chronicle.
1984. In Christmas Eve column, borrows what the Phoenix refers to
as "concept, tone, and several phrases" from a 1954 Jimmy Cannon classic.
1985. Writes column that gets national attention about a woman who's
shot and injured, and whose mother catches the suspect. Globe retracts
Barnicle's claim that the suspect had bullets in his pocket, and defense
lawyers continue to insist that Barnicle's so-called interview with the
suspect's mother was fictitious.
1990. After Charles Stuart jumps to his death, Barnicle writes columns
exonerating the police for their false arrest of the original suspect, William
Bennett. He later writes that Stuart had taken out a big insurance policy on
his soon-to-be-murdered wife, but can't back it up. Years later, the
Globe admits that it should have retracted the claim.
1990. Quotes Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz as saying he loves
Asian women because "they're so submissive." Dershowitz blows a gasket, and
Globe ombudsman questions Barnicle's credibility. The Globe pays
a $75,000 out-of-court settlement.
1990. Writes column quoting a tenant's allegations that her Lynn
landlord exposed himself to her and beats his wife. The outraged landlord, whom
Barnicle said he couldn't contact, complains, and then-ombudsman Robert
Kierstead writes that Barnicle should have held the column until he was able to
reach the landlord. Eight years later, Globe vice president Al Larkin
tells his own paper that the Globe may have reached an out-of-court
settlement with the landlord, possibly in the form of an apology.
1991. Boston magazine publishes a series of articles charging
that Barnicle made up characters and quotes. Barnicle says Boston's
wrong, but declines the opportunity to prove it.
1992. Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko complains that
Barnicle's been ripping off his columns and rewriting them slightly. Noting
that the Globe subscribes to his column but rarely uses it, Royko
sarcastically refers to his work as a "tip sheet" for Barnicle.
1992. Globe offers buyouts to employees in bid to reduce payroll.
Barnicle says yes, and takes most of the summer off. Returns with a reputed
$200,000 salary and a new title: associate editor.
1992. Writes of his colleagues, "Missing a story seldom bothers more
than a handful around here." Four days later, the column appears as a full-page
ad in the Herald.
Smith, contacted at home Tuesday, declined to comment, saying, "It wouldn't be
right." But African-American staffers at the Globe are said to be deeply
angered. About 10 minority Globe staffers met for an hour at a hotel
down the street from the Globe on Tuesday night; the group was expected
to issue a statement critical of management after the Phoenix went to
press, according to one who was there. "Patricia Smith got what she deserved,"
says political reporter Adrian Walker. "But there's an equity issue. There's no
doubt about it." Adds sports-media critic Howard Manly: "We can argue matters
of degree all day and all night, but the fact of the matter is that the
Globe has shown the city of Boston and the country that the old-boy
network is alive. The credibility of the paper has taken a significant hit, and
it will take years before it stops being a joke. That they are willing to risk
the work of an entire newsroom to save one person is unbelievable. This doesn't
break down along racial lines. This crosses gender, race, and age. This is
about journalism -- old-school."
It sure is. And it's about the survival of one of Boston's most recognizable,
and controversial, media figures. Just six weeks ago, following Smith's
resignation, Storin put Barnicle through a well-deserved public fact-checking
exercise, and announced that he didn't think previous editors had dealt
adequately with questions about Barnicle's work. Relations hit bottom when
Storin appeared on Channel 2's Greater Boston and compared Barnicle to
"a petulant 14-year-old." When an outraged Barnicle, dressed in sneakers,
shorts, and a T-shirt, responded by chewing out Storin in front of the paper's
top editors, it seemed like the act of a pathetic has-been. Now, for all
Storin's rhetoric about making Barnicle work harder and requiring him actually
to deal with editors, there can be little doubt who, as Barnicle himself might
put it, has the biggest dick in the building.
At 54, the pugnacious, cigar-wielding Barnicle is no longer as influential as
he was, say, 10 or 15 years ago. The laziness he acknowledged Tuesday long ago
turned his column from a must-read into a quick skim. But Barnicle is still
standing. Like a goddamn monument. The only question is to what.
Life has been good to Mike Barnicle. He helped write the screenplay for The
Candidate and remains friendly with its star, Robert Redford. He rose from
lowly aide to speechwriter during Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign,
and to this day he is an intimate of the Kennedys. He was close enough to Tip
O'Neill to have served as a pallbearer at his funeral, along with fellow
Globe Irish mafiosi Robert Healy, Martin Nolan, and David Nyhan.
Barnicle himself is not unaware of his good fortune. "I've got the best job in
America," he said in a 1983 Boston magazine profile. "It's a beautiful
day. I'm driving around. I got license, freedom, nobody breathing down my back.
Hey, I'm a lucky bastard. It's a fuckin' pisser, isn't it?"
[Editor's note: After this article was published, the Phoenix was told by screenwriter Jeremy Larner that Barnicle did no work on the script for The Candidate. "I wrote every word of it," said Larner, whose script won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Also, in September 1998, Boston magazine and the Phoenix reported that Barnicle appeared to have exaggeratetd his role in Robert Kennedy's campaign. See "Media," This Just In, September 25, 1998.]
Barnicle was brought to the paper in 1973 by then-executive editor Bob Healy,
who'd met him at Redford's Sundance retreat. Legendary columnist George Frazier
was on his deathbed ("I'm expecting him to come in any day now to shut off the
oxygen," Frazier said of Barnicle, according to Northeastern University
professor Charles Fountain's 1984 Frazier biography, Another Man's
Poison), and Healy hired Barnicle to write columns at $50 a pop.
Barnicle's tough-guy image and feel for the streets filled a need at the
Globe, a paper whose local coverage had, for decades, come across as
elite and effete. His role was never more valuable than it was in the
mid-1970s, when school desegregation threw the city into racial turmoil. As the
late J. Anthony Lukas describes it in Common Ground (1985), Barnicle was
one of the few at the Globe who had the guts or the sense to criticize
white suburban liberals for imposing their social-engineering schemes on the
urban poor. He also cultivated a relationship with then-editor Tom Winship,
who, observers say, indulged Barnicle and overlooked his excesses. (Winship did
not return several calls seeking comment.)
Barnicle wasn't always lazy. He told extraordinary stories -- still does,
occasionally -- about the dispossessed and the down on their luck, about cops
and firefighters and veterans, and about the poor of all races. In a memorable
putdown of Barnicle in the Columbia Journalism Review some years back,
literary agent Richard Todd, a former editor for the Atlantic Monthly,
wrote: "If you have just arrived from Cambodia and have been set upon by thugs,
if you are stone-blind and 94 years old and the water pipes have burst, if you
are a 32-year-old firefighter with eight kids and you're waiting for a heart
transplant, rest easy: Mike Barnicle will find you."
But there was considerable dignity in Barnicle's stories, even if he did often
indulge in florid sentimentality. I still recall crying while reading a column
he wrote in 1990 in which he recalled his late father's taking him to opening
day at Fenway Park. That's a gift, and it explains why he's survived -- hell,
prospered -- for a quarter-century. Unfortunately, these days it's not a gift
he shares all that often.
In the matter of Barnicle v. Globe, it is not necessary for the paper to
prove that Barnicle broke some rule of journalistic ethics in order to take his
column away. This is a newspaper, not a criminal courtroom. Newspapers are
losing readers, and no paper can afford to keep a star columnist whose star has
If Matt Storin doesn't think Barnicle's column is much good anymore (and if
Storin doesn't hold that view, he should), then that ought to be enough.
Storin's primary loyalty -- his only loyalty -- should be to the quality of the
paper. The truth is that Barnicle's column has stunk for a long time. Storin's
admonition to him should be simple: be good or be gone.
Barnicle has always been more about grinding some private ax than serving the
public. Every columnist has his favorites, and there's nothing necessarily
wrong with liking former Boston mayor Kevin White, former state treasurer Bob
Crane, UMass president Bill Bulger, and every last Kennedy unto the fourth
generation. But Barnicle screws his enemies without showing his hand to
readers, who have a right to expect that his political commentary is on the
level. His blatant water-carrying for Billy Bulger is particularly problematic,
because Barnicle tries to ruin anyone who has the temerity to go after Bulger.
This election season, for instance, he tortured gubernatorial candidate Joe
Malone, a longtime Bulger foe, and attorney general hopeful Lois Pines, who
participated in a failed coup against Bulger when he was president of the
Massachusetts Senate, in 1994. But Barnicle only occasionally bothers to reveal
the root of his animus.
The Globe's annus
Since last October, when the Boston Globe published an
extensive, controversial report on former Boston mayor Ray Flynn's alleged
drinking problem and inept performance as ambassador to the Vatican, the
newspaper's performance has been a national story.
60 Minutes took a poke at the Flynn story. The New York Times,
among other media outlets, ran articles last spring when the Boston Police
complained to the Pulitzer Prize judges about the Globe's Spotlight Team
reports on police corruption. Patricia Smith's forced resignation was, of
course, national news. And, last week, National Public Radio's All Things
Considered announced an Unoriginal Writing Contest, "inspired by Boston
Globe columnist Mike Barnicle."
Is the Globe, long considered one of the country's best regional
papers, developing a reputation? "To have two successive fiascoes with your
most prominent columnists is a huge embarrassment for the Globe,"
responds Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. "One of these per
decade is usually enough for most metropolitan newspapers. The further danger
is that it all gets lumped together with such debacles as the CNN nerve-gas
retraction. It's hard to make an argument that ripping off some jokes is as bad
as falsely accusing US troops of a war crime, but in the public consciousness
the Globe's difficulties simply become part of the litany of
Of course, simply having its ethics questioned doesn't mean the Globe is
unethical. 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace appeared to be most outraged that the
Globe would go after Flynn at a time when his political career was clearly
over. Yet Flynn's current status as front-runner in the Eighth Congressional
District is pretty convincing evidence that the Globe did not overplay the
story. Likewise, the Spotlight Team reports the police complained about were
solid and important, though police officials did argue persuasively that the
GlobeŐs articles did not reflect the reality of the department as a whole.
The Barnicle situation could have been a chance for the Globe to
demonstrate that it takes ethics very seriously indeed. For editor Matt Storin to
have forced out Barnicle -- a problem not of Storin's making -- would have sent a
stern message. Retired Globe executive editor Robert Phelps, who worked
under Barnicle mentor Tom Winship and is now at Harvard's Nieman Foundation, last
weekend delivered a veiled rebuke to Barnicle and to the charmed life he's led,
saying: "All I know is what I see in the papers. But I have utmost respect for
Matt Storin. I believe in what he's done for the Globe, and I'm sure he
understands what Mike's done for Boston and for the Globe."
But that was before Storin changed his mind.
And when it comes to the other Bulger, Whitey, Barnicle crosses the line from
irresponsibility into journalistic corruption. Barnicle has consistently, and
against all reason, defended the deal FBI agent John Connolly made with Whitey
Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, letting them sell drugs, terrorize their enemies,
and even kill in return for intelligence on La Cosa Nostra.
Barnicle's August 4 effort -- coming just two days after the Carlin column --
was quintessential Barnicle. He went after John Martorano, a killer who's
decided to cooperate with the FBI in its quest to track down the elusive
Bulger. Barnicle quoted Eddie Walsh, "an honest cop," as saying Martorano
"killed an awful lot of black people," including three women at a Roxbury club
in the 1960s. "If he gets immunity," Walsh, who's now retired, told Barnicle,
"they ought to put the judge in jail."
The column caused an immediate uproar, because sources inside the Globe
-- not to mention Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis -- questioned how
there could have been an unsolved triple murder that no one could remember. As
it turned out, the murder had occurred, though Barnicle had some of the genders
wrong (it was two men and one woman). But as Gelzinis reported in a devastating
column on August 6, Barnicle failed to mention that "honest cop" Walsh is one
of Connolly's closest friends. And that Connolly had shared with Walsh
information that could have saved the life of a bookie who was prepared to rat
out Bulger, had Walsh chosen to do anything with said information. Leaving out
such facts is not just bias on Barnicle's part; it's gross malpractice, and
it's inexplicable that the same Globe that could produce a
Pulitzer-caliber Spotlight series on the FBI's Bulger connection could at the
same time tolerate such sleaze.
Barnicle originally built his reputation by pounding the streets and building
up contacts around the city. Occasionally he still gets out. But between
appearances on Chronicle and Imus in the Morning, between
commentary on MSNBC and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, there obviously
isn't time for much street-pounding these days. So we get dumb (and, based on
what we know now, perhaps not even original) jokes about Viagra and Jane
Swift's weight. Or absolutely unverifiable slices of life, such as the one
about the anonymous woman who was fired by her anonymous company after she
admitted she was a smoker. (Why would Barnicle's editors publish such a column,
given past unanswered allegations that he makes up characters?) Or an
exasperating tendency to use words such as marvelous over and over and
over. (It popped up in 31 columns between July 1, 1997, and June 30, 1998,
according to a Nexis search.) Or an angry dismissal of illiterate kids in which
he actually managed to misspell the name of historian David McCullough.
Columnists such as the Globe's Eileen McNamara and Joan Vennochi and
the Herald's Peter Gelzinis and Margery Eagan and even Howie Carr
(though not nearly as often as in his pre-radio days) tell us something
original and vital about the life of the city, which is what a good metro
columnist should do. Barnicle should try it.
It would be bad enough if Barnicle were merely in the tank, or were merely
lazy, or were merely inducing readers to fall into a catatonic stupor every
Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday morning. But it's worse. Much worse. Indeed, the
most amazing aspect of the Mike Barnicle story is that he wasn't fired on any
number of occasions -- beginning with one of his very first columns -- for all
manner of professional malpractice.
Barnicle's nastiest habit, by far, has been his tendency -- denied by him, of
course -- to put words in other people's mouths. Vicious, racist words that end
up costing the Globe a lot of money. Take the day in 1973 when Barnicle
wrote that a Roxbury gas-station owner had referred to blacks as "niggers." He
was sued for libel, and the Globe had to pay a $40,000 award after the
judge ruled Barnicle had made it up.
Twelve years later, Barnicle wrote a column that got national attention: the
story of a 21-year-old woman who was shot and slightly injured during a holdup,
and whose assailant was arrested after the victim's mother overheard the
suspect bragging the next day. (Within days, the Globe acknowledged that
Barnicle had falsely reported that the suspect had bullets in his possession
when he was arrested.) Barnicle quoted the suspect's mother -- "wearing a
bandana around her forehead and a sad expression on her face" -- as saying,
"This whole thing has got me upset. I don't know what to think about what my
son is supposed to have done. I just don't know. I don't want to talk, though,
and he don't, either. That's it." Yassuh. Yet to this day, two lawyers involved
in the case -- Margaret Burnham and Max Stern -- insist that the mother, whom
they describe as well educated and articulate, never spoke to Barnicle.
But all this is mere prelude to Barnicle's most infamous flap: the 1990 column
in which he went after Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz for having
dared to criticize Billy Bulger. Near the end of the column, Barnicle recalled
that, some nine years earlier, Dershowitz had told him that he loved Asian
women because "they're so submissive." Dershowitz went ballistic, and the
Globe's then-ombudsman, Gordon McKibben, wrote that he found Barnicle
less than credible. Just last week, Brill's Content revealed that the
Globe had paid Dershowitz a $75,000 settlement, hardly an exercise in
standing by your man. Yet Barnicle continues to insist he did nothing wrong.
Now, making up quotes is very bad indeed, if that is in fact what he did. But
it would appear that Barnicle also makes up entire characters, the very sin
that cost Patricia Smith her job. In 1991, Boston magazine published
articles suggesting that Barnicle had invented several colorful folks, and
reported on extensive efforts it had made to track down the people Barnicle had
named. By any standard, the Boston articles were detailed, solid, and
well researched. But again, Barnicle simply denied any wrongdoing, and that was
the end of it.
Last month Boston rehashed its 1991 investigation, reporting that even
a private investigator it had hired could find no evidence of the people
Barnicle named. But at Tuesday's news conference, Barnicle refused to answer
questions about those columns from Boston's Sean Flynn, calling
Boston a "hotel guide" and saying contemptuously: "We take care of that
kind of business inside the paper. I've answered Tom Winship's questions, I've
answered [former editor] Jack Driscoll's questions, and I've answered Matt
Storin's questions over the course of 25 years." Maybe they weren't asking the
Nor is last week's Carlin incident the first time Barnicle has been
accused of stealing material. In 1984, Barnicle wrote a Christmas Eve column
that, as the Phoenix put it, "lifted the concept, tone, and several
phrases" from a classic 1954 piece by Jimmy Cannon, though Barnicle's handiwork
fell short of plagiarism strictly defined.
He flew closer to the plagiarism flame in 1992, when Chicago Tribune
columnist Mike Royko complained that Barnicle had pilfered from him by
rewriting an oft-reprinted 30-year-old Christmas column about a penniless
couple named, fortuitously enough, Mary and Joe. Royko cited at least two other
occasions when Barnicle had done the same thing.
"Barnicle usually takes the idea and theme and makes enough changes so the
quality deteriorates and he still fills the space," Royko told the
Washington Post. And, noting that he wrote five columns a week to
Barnicle's three, Royko added, "A guy who only works three days a week ought to
come up with his own ideas." Again, Barnicle stuck with what had worked so well
before: he denied all.
The fall of 1989 was one of the most traumatic periods in Boston's long,
racially troubled history. A young white couple from the suburbs, Charles and
Carol Stuart, were shot after they drove into a black neighborhood following
childbirth classes. Carol Stuart and her unborn child died. Charles Stuart was
seriously injured. His description of the assailant: an unknown black man.
Police responded to the murder by swooping into Mission Hill. Every black male
was a suspect. Within weeks, an arrest had been made. William Bennett, who fit
the description provided by Stuart, was accused of the crime.
A few months later, with the truth closing in, Chuck Stuart jumped off the
Tobin Bridge. Bennett was released. And Mike Barnicle went to work, stoking the
flames of racial anger in the name of exonerating the cops, who employed his
brother, Paul, and who had provided him with so many juicy tidbits over the
years. Barnicle wrote racially polarizing columns claiming -- on the basis of a
wisp of a rumor, as it turned out -- that Bennett had bragged about committing
the murder. He reported that Bennett was a maggot who, among other things, had
once shot a legless cabbie. (True but irrelevant.) "Often in error, never in
doubt, he whistled the police tune in the case even after the truth came out,"
wrote The Connection's Christopher Lydon in the Washington Journalism
Review, adding that Barnicle "followed his friendly anonymous sources into
an abyss." The whole sordid episode reeked of the kind of corrupt journalism
that he displayed in his John Martorano column last week. Indeed, the Stuart
case led to far-reaching reforms in the police department -- reforms that, if
Barnicle's praise of the boys in blue was to be believed, were entirely
It gets worse. Later, Barnicle reported a motive for Charles Stuart's crime: a
$480,000 insurance policy he'd taken out on his wife. The evidence for that has
never surfaced, and Globe managing editor Greg Moore recently conceded
that a correction should have been published. Thus in one incident was Barnicle
able to demonstrate a number of his varied talents: his ability to stir up
racial discord; his service to friends at the expense of his readers; and his
penchant for getting a key fact wrong.
Of course, even with all that, it's hard to get rid of an employee who's been
loyal over the years. But Barnicle? Come on. In 1979, when the Globe
refused his request to report from Cambodia, he took a leave of absence and
flew over himself, ostensibly to write for the Los Angeles Herald
Examiner. Within days, Barnicle's byline was atop the Globe's
competition, the Boston Herald American, which, like the LA paper, was
owned by Hearst. All was forgiven.
In 1984, Barnicle -- two years into his gig at Chronicle -- went to
Winship and said he wanted to quit television so he could put more time into
his column. Winship, naturally, loved the idea, and granted Barnicle the big
raise he requested to compensate for his lost TV income. But Barnicle, uh,
forgot to leave Chronicle. The situation was reportedly resolved only
when Barnicle agreed to a slight downward revision of his Globe
In 1992, he wrote of his Globe colleagues, "Missing a story seldom
bothers more than a handful around here." Naturally, the column was reprinted
as a full-page ad in the Herald. The headline: HERE'S WHAT MIKE BARNICLE
THINKS ABOUT BOSTON GLOBE REPORTERS.
Given such a record, and given the Globe's utter lack of backbone in
standing up to him over the years, probably the one person who wasn't surprised
by Barnicle's resurrection this week was Barnicle himself.
Clearly, he's got his employers well trained.
The Globe had an ideal opportunity to extricate itself from its
codependency with Barnicle in 1992. Times were tough, and the Taylor family,
looking to unload some salaries, offered generous buyout packages to staffers
who were willing to take early retirement. Barnicle, peeved over some alleged
slight, announced he would grab the money and run, and disappeared for most of
the summer. But the Taylors were frantic at the prospect of losing their star.
They lured him back and agreed to pay him a salary that's reported to be in
excess of $200,000. They also made him part of management, giving him the title
of associate editor -- an ego boost that explains why Barnicle no longer enjoys
the protection of the sort of contract normally given a star columnist.
The man on the spot right now is not Mike Barnicle but, rather, Matt Storin.
After the Patricia Smith fiasco, he was thought by some to be on somewhat shaky
ground: he handled the aftermath calmly and decisively, but he took some
deserved heat when it was revealed that he submitted Smith's columns for a
Pulitzer despite evidence that she'd faked columns in the past. Now, following
the Barnicle incident, some wonder about Storin's ultimate fate. New
Yorker media writer Ken Auletta says the New York Times Company rarely
interferes with its properties; another knowledgeable source says the company
appears to be content with Storin, but that was before the events of Tuesday.
In such a fluid, unpredictable environment, it's not inconceivable that Storin
could be made the fall guy -- ironic, given that Storin is generally regarded
as being more ethically sensitive than his predecessors. And if Storin did, as
he claims, engineer Barnicle's return, then he has much to answer for.
Storin has built a reputation as a strong leader, which is why many of the
past week's events make little sense. Granted, he may not have been able to
catch a plane back from Italy, where he was vacationing, in time to make any
difference. But why (assuming it was his call) did he let the Herald
expose Barnicle's wrongdoings without having the Globe do a story the
same day? After all, the Globe was tipped off at about the same time as
the Herald. Why did he make a snap decision to terminate Barnicle, then
dither for a week while Barnicle carried on a highly effective public-relations
offensive in which he cast himself as a working-class hero being punished by
his jet-setting editor? Why publish a full page of letters on Sunday, as if the
final decision would be based on a popularity contest?
"The leadership at the Boston Globe, when it came to the crunch, choked
and failed to exhibit the kind of strong leadership which in the present
context would have suggested real moral and professional authority on their
part," says the Reverend Eugene Rivers, who notes the sharp contrast between
the way the Barnicle and Smith cases were handled. "It's a sad day for
journalism and, unfortunately, a very `white' mark on the Globe."
After the news conference, Barnicle strode out of the Globe building,
trailing a pack of television reporters asking the same two or three questions
over and over again. He tossed off a few easy stock replies, but saved a fuller
explanation for a friendly audience: David Ropeik, a good reporter who also
just happens to be a fellow employee of Barnicle's at Channel 5, where Barnicle
pulls down another $150,000 or so. Inside, Globe staffers were fuming at
the spectacle. "Barnicle symbolizes everything that people nationally disdain
about the Globe," says a respected insider. "The ethical sloppiness, the
sense that he embodies regional prejudices." Outside, Barnicle was the calm in
the eye of the storm, and that storm may not abate any time soon.
It's a storm that could have been headed off if the Globe done the
right thing a long time ago.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.