The Boston Phoenix
August 20 - 27, 1998

[Features]

Striking Similarities

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.



Also: Word for word Barnicle against Liebling
Jason Gay's 50 reasons why Barnicle's column was predictable
Unrest at Channel 5


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 Guidry.

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 Uncle Earl.

"'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 mouth.

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 subtracted.

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 quotes.

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 dkennedy@phx.com.


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