Mike Barnicle, this is A.J. Liebling. Have you met?
by Dan Kennedy
Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle's carefully
choreographed resurrection has been rationalized by a fragile fiction: that,
despite a career filled with what editor Matt Storin has euphemistically
described as "controversy," it's never actually been proven that Barnicle has
engaged in professional misconduct. Thus, Storin argues, Barnicle deserves the
same second chance Patricia Smith received in 1995, when she was first
suspected of making up characters and quotes. "I've never lied. I've never
plagiarized," Barnicle asserted at last week's news conference at the
Globe. Never mind that Mike Royko accused Barnicle of stealing his ideas
on at least three occasions. Never mind that the Phoenix once caught
Barnicle loosely rewriting a classic Jimmy Cannon column.
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Now comes what is perhaps the most damning evidence of all that
Barnicle has, indeed, plagiarized. Twelve and a half years ago, Barnicle wrote
a column in which he clearly borrowed heavily -- lifting exact quotes, complete
with idiosyncratic spelling -- from A.J. Liebling's 1961 biography of Louisiana
political legend Earl Long, The Earl of Louisiana. Northeastern
University journalism professor Bill Kirtz says he wrote a letter at the time
to Robert Kierstead, who was then the Globe's ombudsman, suggesting that
Kierstead look into it. Kierstead says he doesn't recall receiving such a
letter, adding: "In the nine years that I did it [worked as ombudsman], I
received calls complaining about Barnicle, but I never once received a call
complaining that Mike Barnicle had plagiarized."
Kirtz has never gone public with his brief against Barnicle, although he says
he's discussed it with students in his journalism-ethics classes for years.
Kirtz also alludes to it briefly in the current issue of Quill, the
journal of the Society of Professional Journalists. In a piece on the
fabrications of Smith and the New Republic's Stephen Glass, published
before Barnicle's most recent troubles, Kirtz writes that "Barnicle lifted
without credit scores of details from A.J. Liebling's The Earl of
Louisiana." But the particulars of that incident have never been reported
-- until now.
Barnicle could not be reached for comment. Storin was unavailable. Vice
president and assistant to the publisher Al Larkin said, "You've presented us
with a 12-year-old column and given us an hour to respond. I can't say anything
about these comparisons without more time to look into them, and we will."
The column in question was published just a month before Michael Janeway's
year-long tenure as the Globe's editor came to an abrupt end. Storin,
who had been the paper's managing editor, had departed the previous year after
a falling-out with Janeway, and did not return to the Globe until 1992.
Veteran executive editor Jack Driscoll, who served in the top slot between the
Janeway and Storin regimes, is now retired. Three different ombudsmen have
served since Kierstead retired. The two remaining constants: Mike Barnicle and
his slipshod standards.
Barnicle's column, headlined politics in the bayou and published on January
20, 1986, attributes a string of humorous anecdotes to Gillis Long, a long-time
Louisiana congressman. Gillis Long was a cousin of Earl Long, a Louisiana
governor in the 1950s, and his more famous brother, Huey Long, a governor and
senator whose career was ended by an assassin's bullet. "Gillis Long . . . had
stories that would not quit," Barnicle wrote. And there's no reason to doubt
that Barnicle knew Gillis Long; he was a close associate of Tip O'Neill, whom
Barnicle befriended while working as a Capitol Hill cop, among other things,
during the 1960s. But the anecdotes, phrasing, and quotes are pure Liebling.
(See "'Da Raight' Stuff.")
Take, for instance, this passage from Barnicle, who wrote of Earl
Long: "He never cared what the public thought because much of Louisiana was
then in the process 'f going from paper ballot to voting machines and, as Earl
wisely pointed out, 'If I have da raight commissioners I can make dem machines
play 'Home Sweet Home.' " Compare that with Liebling: " 'Da voting machines
won't hold me up,' he said. 'If I have da raight commissioners, I can make dem
machines play 'Home Sweet Home.' " It's fair to assume that stories such as
these were commonly circulated, but Barnicle's use of the quote from Earl Long,
complete with "da raight commissioners" and "dem machines" -- spellings that
exactly match Liebling's -- is itself highly suspicious.
Then consider Barnicle's recounting of a political rally where Long, in the
midst of a gubernatorial campaign, introduced his running mate, one Oscar
Barnicle: "Earl proudly pointed out that Oscar was, 'a fine Frenchman, a fine
Catholic and the father of 23 children.' "
Liebling: " 'I want to introduce to you the man I have selected to serve under
me as Lieutenant Governor during my next term of office -- a fine Frenchmun, a
fine Catholic, the father of twenty-three children, Mr. Oscar Guidry.'
Barnicle: "Guidry . . . felt compelled to correct Uncle Earl. It seems
Oscar came from a family of 23 brothers and sisters but had only 14 children.
'Oscar says he has only 14 children,' Earl said, 'but that's a good beginnin'.'
Liebling: "Mr. Guidry . . . appeared embarrassed, and he whispered rapidly to
"'Oscar says he has only fourteen children,' the Governor announced. `But
that's a good beginnin'.'
"Mr. Guidry whispered again, agitated, and Earl said, 'But he is a member of a
family of twenty-three brothers and sisters.' "
There's more. For instance, both Barnicle and Liebling include a direct quote
-- "A $400 suit on old Uncle Earl would look like socks on a rooster" -- that's
innocuous enough to have come from two separate sources. But when you consider
that it appears just six pages before the section on Oscar Guidry, it seems far
more likely that Barnicle took it from Liebling and stuck it in Gillis Long's
Then there's a long, rambling story about Earl Long's getting up one morning,
finding that potatoes are on sale at a nearby supermarket, and tearing off in
his limo, siren-blaring police cruisers leading the way. Theoretically, of
course, Gillis Long could have told Barnicle the story without Barnicle's being
aware of Liebling's book. But Gillis Long presumably would have told the story
somewhat differently from Liebling, with perhaps a few details added or
Yet Barnicle's details are almost precisely the same. Barnicle writes that
Earl Long bought "hundreds of pounds of potatoes." Liebling quotes a witness as
saying Long bought "a hundred pounds of the potatoes." Next, Barnicle says, the
governor "purchased $300 worth of alarm clocks, 87 dozen goldfish and two cases
of Mogen-David wine." Liebling's witness says Long saw "some alarm clocks on
sale and buys three hundred dollars' worth," and that he also bought
"eighty-seven dozen goldfish in individual plastic bags of water, and two cases
of that sweet Mogen David wine." The two accounts are also remarkably alike in
relating how Governor Long corralled a few judges and state senators into
helping him carry the stuff out and tie it down onto his overloaded car.
Also damning is the fact that, for each of the anecdotes, there are no details
in the Barnicle version that do not appear in Liebling (with the sole exception
of "hundreds" instead of "hundred"). It seems very unlikely that a third
source, Gillis Long, would have told all three stories without
any embellishments or changes.
Indeed, if Barnicle's column is to be taken at face value, then you have to
believe he took extensive notes from conversations with Gillis Long at least 20
years earlier (since Barnicle claims he heard those stories during the "portion
of my misspent youth [that] occurred at the edges of politics") and that said
notes coincided almost perfectly with Liebling's book, including direct quotes.
Or maybe Barnicle relied on what he once called his "photographic memory." In
any case, there's no checking with Gillis Long: he dropped dead of a heart
attack, conveniently enough, a year before Barnicle's column appeared.
Barnicle even includes an anecdote about Earl Long's debauched final night in
the governor's mansion -- which featured a striptease by his exotic-dancer
girlfriend, Blaze Starr, to the sounds of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" -- that
is uncannily similar to the tale told in Starr's autobiography, Blaze Starr:
My Life as Told to Huey Perry (1974), although there's nothing as blatant
as Barnicle's ripoff of Liebling.
Bill Kirtz says he recalls picking up the Globe the day Barnicle's Earl
Long column appeared. "I'm a big Liebling fan, and I remembered that it sounded
familiar. So I pulled it out, and bing-bing-bing." He says that he never
followed up his letter to then-ombudsman Kierstead despite not receiving a
reply. "I know I sent it to him," Kirtz says. But he adds he would not dispute
Kierstead's claim that he never got it. In other dealings with Kierstead, Kirtz
says, "I found him nothing but courteous and amiable." As for Barnicle's
apparent reliance on Liebling, Kirtz -- who fired a writer for plagiarism in
1969, when he was a community-newspaper publisher -- is more pointed. "It's
certainly plagiarism in the moral sense," Kirtz says. "This is piss-poor."
It's also standard operating procedure for Barnicle, who, since arriving as a
columnist in 1973, has cost the paper at least $110,000 (for a libel judgment
and an out-of-court settlement), has been publicly criticized by Mike Royko for
allegedly stealing column ideas from him, and has been hit by credible
accusations that he -- like Patricia Smith -- has concocted characters and
If the Globe acted against Barnicle in any of those incidents, it
certainly hasn't made that public. Barnicle, meanwhile, has cynically played
the hoary journalistic game to perfection: he's accused of something; he
vigorously denies it; and the media pronounce it a standoff, regardless of how
strong the evidence against Barnicle happens to be.
Indeed, although I had long been aware of past accusations against Barnicle, I
hadn't realized how convincing they were until I examined the record following
his most recent misadventure over George Carlin's bestseller Brain
Droppings. At first I accepted Barnicle's explanation that he wouldn't have
been stupid enough actually to copy lines out of the book. But since that's
exactly what he appears to have done on other occasions, why should the Carlin
affair be any different?
Plenty of fine journalists have made an error of judgment or two. Barnicle has
seen fit to note that New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield was
suspended for lifting material from the Globe some years back. NPR
legal-affairs reporter Nina Totenberg was fired by the now-defunct National
Observer in 1972 for copying several paragraphs and verbatim quotes from a
Washington Post profile of Tip O'Neill. "I was in a hurry. I used
terrible judgment," Totenberg told the Columbia Journalism Review in a
1995 article about plagiarism. "The fact that I used so many direct quotes
obligated me morally to credit the Post. I should have been punished. I
have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to
have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again." More than 12
years ago, when Boston Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis was working as a
freelancer, he was found to have plagiarized in two articles he wrote for the
Globe, a paper for which he'd worked as a contributing writer years
earlier. "It was a shameful and reckless act," Kadzis says, "and I've worked
hard to put it behind me." (Thanks to Elisabeth Anne Riba for telling me and
others who've been discussing Barnicle on the Internet about the CJR
article. Riba's research on Barnicle -- as well as other resources -- can be
found on the Web at http://www.boston-online.com/barnicle.)
The point about Barnicle isn't that he strayed at some moment in his career,
but that he's been caught violating the standards of his profession over and
over without ever paying much of a price. The two-month suspension he is now
serving seems about right only if his most recent offense is considered in
isolation. The real question is why Globe management has let Barnicle
get away with so much for so long. And whether Storin, publisher Ben Taylor, et
al. will look at new evidence that Barnicle is a plagiarist and ask themselves
-- as Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas did rather courageously in a column
this past Monday -- how they can let him off so lightly once again.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.