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Mike Barnicle Forced Out
At Boston Globe


By Howard Kurtz and Pamela Ferdinand
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 20, 1998

  Style Showcase


BOSTON, Aug. 19—Mike Barnicle, the Boston Globe columnist who was suspended early this month, then was asked to resign, then spared from being fired, was forced to quit today after his editors could not confirm the existence of two cancer-stricken boys he wrote about in a moving 1995 column.

The Globe acted after Kenneth Tomlinson, retired editor of Reader's Digest, alerted the paper to the column, which Tomlinson had wanted to reprint until he found that his fact-checkers could not verify that the children were real. Tomlinson, one of whose children had had cancer, also provided a copy to The Washington Post in recent days.

The Globe caught Barnicle in an apparent lie when he acknowledged that he had never spoken to either of the cancer victims' families described in the column. In a 1995 internal memo, Reader's Digest fact-checker Deirdre Casper wrote: "I asked him if he had spoken to both sets of parents. He said he had." But Barnicle "explained in no uncertain terms that he would not reveal the names of those involved."

Globe Editor Matthew Storin said: "Basically, this was a sufficient violation of journalistic ethics to merit ending his career here. In this case, the punishment did fit the crime."

Barnicle, 54, said in a statement to WCVB-TV, which announced that it will keep him as a commentator, that his resignation was "the best thing for the paper . . . this was a feeding frenzy beyond belief." He also told MSNBC, "I still believe that story to be true. It was not fabricated."

Tomlinson, a former director of the Voice of America, said tonight that he called Storin after deciding to write about the 1995 column for the Weekly Standard. "It always remained with me," he said. "Rarely in my career at Reader's Digest have I seen a piece of work so fabricated, and it was a piece about a kid dying of cancer. I could never read Barnicle with the same attitude."

Barnicle's ouster also came as Boston Phoenix reporter Dan Kennedy was preparing to publish a story charging that in 1986 the columnist "clearly borrowed heavily – lifting exact quotes, complete with idiosyncratic spelling – from A.J. Liebling's 1961 biography of Louisiana political legend Earl Long." Storin acknowledged that in the column "the anecdotes and quotes were identical" to the book. Kennedy's piece, which was faxed to the Globe this morning, was reminiscent of this month's flap over Barnicle lifting another writer's jokes.

The Globe newsroom, which had been deeply divided over Barnicle's reinstatement, applauded when Storin made the late-afternoon announcement.

In the Oct. 8, 1995, column, Barnicle told a tear-jerker tale about a wealthy family whose 9-year-old son was being treated for cancer at Children's Hospital here. The white boy became friends with a black child in the hospital, and after the other child died, the white child's parents gave the black child's family $10,000, according to the column.

The piece began: "She opened the letter as she strolled up the driveway from the mailbox. As she finished the first paragraph she stopped in her tracks, unable to focus because of the tears in her eyes. After a few seconds, she lifted her head toward the perfect sky and, for a brief, wonderful moment, she could hear her son singing his favorite song."

Barnicle then quoted the entire 10-sentence letter: "We will never forget the kindness you showed our son at Children's. God moves in mysterious ways. We are so fortunate. . . . Now it is time for our family to give in return. May God bless you."

Globe Assistant Managing Editor Walter Robinson said Barnicle told him that he heard about the children at a restaurant/bar from a nurse who worked at another hospital and later treated the boy who lived. But Barnicle did not remember the nurse's name and failed to produce any substantiation and refused to provide the name of a friend he said had accompanied him to the bar, where they met the nurse. What's more, the state department of public health could find no record that a 9-year-old black Massachusetts boy died of cancer between 1993 and 1995, Robinson said.

"The fact of the matter is, even if we accept it at face value, how he got the story, the reporting standards he admits to are so abysmally low as to be a disgrace to this newspaper," Robinson said.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has sued Barnicle in the past, said today he was preparing to provide the New York Times, whose parent company owns the Globe, with evidence alleging transgressions by the columnist. "Barnicle has had a long history as a serial fabricator . . . the Globe simply waited too long," Dershowitz said.

Globe Chairman William Taylor asked for and received Barnicle's resignation in a phone call this afternoon. Storin said that Barnicle "admitted right up front that he never talked to the parents. This goes to the core question about how Barnicle was treated over the years." More careful checking "should have been done earlier," he said.

Howard Manley, the Globe's sports media critic, said: "Barnicle was an institution, the voice of the working class, but his human flaws were revealed over time. . . . It's a sad, sad day. I'm not rejoicing."

One Globe staffer, who asked not to be named, said: "In the end, all of the evidence showed no boy existed, no boy died of cancer, they couldn't find the nurse, and the words 'complete fabrication' were used today. I think the staff felt really triumphant. . . . People felt shocked again, but we also felt a real sense that he hung himself by his own noose."

Andrew Costello, editor of the rival Boston Herald, said: "I think it was just a matter of time before something like this happened. Too many people were raising too many questions about columns he's written in the past."

Earlier this month, the 25-year Globe veteran mounted a high-profile campaign to save his job after he used a series of jokes from a George Carlin book without attribution. Barnicle conceded his conduct had been "stupid" and "embarrassing," but said the jokes were given to him by a bartender friend.

Storin initially suspended Barnicle for one month, but demanded his resignation after learning that the columnist had recommended the Carlin book on television – although Barnicle insisted he had not read it. A week later – after hundreds of readers vowed to cancel their subscriptions and a major advertiser, Staples, threatened to withdraw its support – Storin changed the penalty to a two-month suspension.

Barnicle came under heightened scrutiny two months ago after the Globe accepted the resignation of Patricia Smith, a black columnist who acknowledged fabricating parts of four columns. Critics inside and outside the paper questioned why Smith had been cashiered when Barnicle had been accused of both making up and plaigiarizing material over the years.

The Globe paid Dershowitz $75,000 to settle a lawsuit in which the attorney charged that Barnicle had attributed to him an imaginary slur against Asian women. The Globe had to pay $40,000 to settle another suit, by a gas station owner who also said Barnicle had invented comments attributed to him.

After Smith left the paper, the Globe reviewed 364 of Barnicle's columns since January 1996 and found they met professional standards.

Many at the Globe, including Barnicle himself, said the earlier demand for his resignation was fueled by racial politics that seemed to demand that a white columnist be treated as harshly as a black one, even if the offenses were not equivalent.

Some minorities felt that Barnicle, as a member in good standing of the good ol' boy network, had gotten off with a slap on the wrist. Many reporters expressed resentment toward the well-paid columnist, who lives in the wealthy suburb of Lincoln, frequently appears on local and national television, and seemed to them distant and arrogant.

The "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" has said it would drop Barnicle as a contributor if he were no longer employed by the Globe.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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