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As The Globe Turns

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Storin Globe Editor Matthew Storin: "I'm the unluckiest editor in America." (Michele McDonald/The Post)
BOSTON—In the fall of 1974, during the violent battles over school busing, a white assailant fired a barrage of bullets into the Boston Globe's red-brick building here on Morrissey Boulevard. Working-class Irish residents were furious at the paper's support for busing black kids into their neighborhoods, spawning bumper stickers that read: "Boycott the Boston Globe."

In this racial maelstrom, there was one Globe man who was trusted on the gritty streets of South Boston, a young Irish columnist named Mike Barnicle, who wrote of his people: "To them, busing is a plot, concocted by 'the liberals' and the suburban hypocrites who preach equality from the front porch of gilded white neighborhoods and homes with lush green lawns and two-car garages."

Barnicle might have been – in a way he was – writing about all the Globe editors and reporters who lived far outside the city. But while outsiders saw a white institution backing the black community, insiders grappled with yet another layer of racial tension: Frustrated black reporters effectively went on strike until the Globe agreed to name two of them to the lily-white ranks of management.

Twenty-four years later, New England's dominant newspaper remains buffeted by the winds of racial and ethnic resentment, whether the furor surrounds a black man falsely accused of murder or an Irish politician accused of being a drunk. In the last eight weeks, a controversial black columnist (Patricia Smith) and an equally controversial white one (Barnicle) have been ousted on charges of fabrication or shoddy reporting. Each was a wrenching episode, clumsily handled, and each underscored the painful transition from the Old Globe to the new, multicultural paper trying to rise above the pitfalls of the past.

Last Thursday morning, a weary-looking Matthew Storin, the paper's editor, sat slumped in his chair, having just read that a black activist was demanding his resignation. Days earlier, one of Storin's Hispanic reporters had called the Globe "a racist institution." Suddenly, it seemed, everyone – black, Latino, Irish, Jewish, gay – had a beef with the Boston Globe.

Storin admits to feeling "terribly bruised and embarrassed." But, he says, "people who go before television cameras and say the Globe is racist must really get a few chuckles in the white community, which thinks the Globe bends over too far in support of the black community."

Still, the question hangs in the air: Why didn't he crack down on Barnicle – and Smith – earlier? "I have no excuse," Storin says.

Lost amid the polarizing headlines is that the Globe remains one of the country's best newspapers, one that has gotten better – and, even critics say, more balanced – during Storin's six-year tenure. But the colorful political writing, feisty investigative reporting and must-read Red Sox coverage have been overshadowed by the bitter battles over race and ethics.

"Boston is as tribal a city as you'll find in the United States, with all sorts of ethnic and feudal warlords," says Craig Unger, editor of Boston Magazine. "I don't think the Globe has juggled the various constituencies well at all. They've fallen prey to constituency politics."

Under Suspicion
Matt Storin and Mike Barnicle have known each other since the late 1960s, when Storin was a Globe reporter in Washington and Barnicle a Capitol elevator operator. They have never been friendly.

In the early '80s, when Storin was managing editor, he investigated one of Barnicle's columns. "I wanted to send a message to Mike that I would check something out if I got a complaint," he says.

When Storin was named editor in 1993, he made Patricia Smith, an accomplished poet and single mother, the first black woman to write a metro column for the Globe. Smith had had problems at the Chicago Sun-Times; she was once accused of reviewing an Elton John concert she hadn't attended. But here in Boston, a city where blacks hold little political power, Smith blossomed by writing frankly, often divisively, about race. The paper's ombudsman said her columns often crackled with "an angry assault on white America."

In 1995 she castigated Southie as a "neighborhood that spews venom at people of color who dare to live or shop within its boundaries." She got letters with drawings of her with enlarged lips and her neck in a noose.

In a column later that year Smith recounted a Sunday pay-phone call from one Ernie Keane of nearby Somerville. "I hear Clinton's gonna be in town, and I want youse to arrange that I sit down with him," he told her.

After a reader challenged the column, Walter Robinson, an assistant managing editor, conducted a database search and could find no Ernie Keane of Somerville. He examined all 90 of Smith's columns for 1995 and, incredibly, could not verify the existence of people described in 27 of them.

Storin sat Smith down at the round table in his corner office. "I told her there were people in her columns we couldn't find documentation for, and there were suspicions about that. That just can't be tolerated," he recalls.

Did he ask Smith if Ernie Keane was real? Storin pauses. "We did not confront her on that," he says. Instead, in giving her a second chance, the editor made an explicitly racial calculation.

"I thought we would have a racially divisive situation. I thought if Barnicle was guilty of the same thing, he'd be much more clever in covering it up and we'd have a hard time getting at it, so we'd better start from ground zero and document what they were both doing."

Much had changed since Barnicle wrote in 1974 that "the Irish in America today are the victims of assimilation. Much of their uniqueness has disappeared into the suburbs, lost forever amidst possessions and crabgrass." Now this city of 580,000 had become nearly 40 percent minority.

Barnicle himself lived with his wife and four kids in the exclusive suburb of Lincoln, was a well-heeled television star and drove his black BMW into town to report his tales of inner-city crime and pathos.

Storin was acutely aware of Barnicle's value: "I can't tell you how many times I'd run into someone on the street who didn't look like a Globe reader, and they'd say, 'I love Mike Barnicle.' " Barnicle was a tough-talking product of the Old Globe, the newspaper that Matt Storin was trying to drag into the '90s.

Family Squabbles
The Boston Globe keeps playing out its psychodramas in public.

In 1991, when the paper gave a pay raise to a black reporter named Renee Graham, many white staffers complained that she was undeserving, and one fired off a nasty fax to the rival Boston Herald. Minority reporters responded with an open letter in which 48 employees declared: "We won't stand for this kind of racism." Graham called it "the worst racial incident of my life." Worse, Globe managers checked the fax logs until they fingered the anonymous leaker, Peter Howe, a white reporter from a wealthy family.

Howe apologized and was suspended for two weeks, but he insisted the Globe must be "forced to confront the issue of an alleged double standard."

Whether the Globe is dealing with internal strife or community controversy, race is rarely far from the surface. One Globe reporter describes his newspaper as practicing "the racism of good intentions" – trying to please everyone in this combative city and, in the end, satisfying no one.

Gregory Moore, the paper's managing editor, sees the battles as a badge of courage. "The paper is unafraid to take on racially sensitive issues," says Moore, the Globe's highest-ranking black editor. "And some people do have agendas of their own."

The paper that Barnicle once dubbed "journalism's equivalent of the Mayflower" still boasts of campaigning for the rights of Irish immigrants in the 1870s. As ownership passed through four generations of the Charles Taylor family, the Globe came to be viewed as a pillar of the Brahmin establishment, even as the newsroom became heavily Irish. These days, five of the top six editors are Irish American.

As for the WASP hierarchy, even William Taylor, the chairman, is just an employee of the New York Times Co., which forked over $1.2 billion for the paper five years ago.

Hiring and promotion often spark resentment, as in many big-city newsrooms. Under an affirmative action agreement, one in four new jobs is set aside for a minority. This has produced an editorial staff that is 18 percent minority, or slightly higher than in the surrounding metropolitan area.

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a young feature writer who was quoted by her own paper as calling the Globe a racist institution. But her complaints are more nuanced than her broadside might suggest. She concedes that the paper makes efforts to hire minorities, but says many of them leave because they feel their prospects are limited.

"My college degree is in jazz performance, but I only get asked to do Latin music reviews and to review Latino books," Valdes-Rodriguez says. "My last name may be more important than my expertise. I'm a little broader of a human being than that. I grew up in 'Brady Bunch' suburbia in Albuquerque." Her voice grows softer. "Maybe I met a quota for them."

Moore says flatly: "This paper does not practice racism. I wouldn't be here if it did." But he adds: "I don't think there are nearly enough editors of color, and we have to do something about that. Some departments are predominantly white." It is hard to hold on to black men because, he says, "the city is not as much fun for people of color."

Howard Manly, a sportswriter who is black, also dismisses the talk of racism. He says Storin and the Taylors "have tried to do the right thing. They have made allowances for black folks, brown folks, gay folks to help them rise above, but that comes at a cost. The old-boy network feels these people haven't paid their dues."

When it comes to reporting, the Globe has a knack for stepping on land mines. In 1989, the Globe gave saturation coverage to the murder of a pregnant suburban white woman, Carol Stuart, whose husband, Charles, said they had been attacked by a black man. The Globe, citing police sources, identified a black thief as the prime suspect.

The paper, and the police, were mortified after Charles Stuart jumped off a bridge and evidence surfaced that he had shot his wife and himself and fabricated the story of the attack. But Barnicle, whose brother was a Boston homicide detective, defended the police, denouncing what he called the "wail of a black community demanding apologies for the fact that a black man was arrested."

Class divisions also loom large here. In a meticulously reported front-page piece last year, the paper charged that former mayor Ray Flynn, then the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, sometimes drank to excess in public.

"We essentially had all been enablers for years," says Robinson, the assistant managing editor who wrote the story. "He drank with a lot of reporters. Everyone knew about it and no one wrote it." But, he adds, "there are people in this building who think we shouldn't have done it."

Flynn promptly accused the Globe of Catholic-bashing. "I stop at a pub to talk to working-class people over a beer. The publisher of the Boston Globe can go to a polo match, go to his country club or do whatever he wants," he said.

Storin took umbrage at the assault, noting that he is the product of "16 years of Catholic school." Still, he says, "this is New England. It's a class-conscious society here. Walk over to Harvard Square and the first 15 faculty you meet will tell you that the Globe is such a provincial rag. It's a very contentious community."

'Far Less Unfairly Liberal'
The Old Globe was a reflexively liberal Democratic newspaper, known for its cozy relationship with the Kennedys. Barnicle himself had once written speeches for Bobby Kennedy. Storin was determined that the New Globe erase that image.

Perhaps the clearest declaration of independence came when the Globe broke the story that Michael Kennedy, Bobby's son, had allegedly begun an affair with his family's babysitter when she was 14. The explosive report triggered a chain of events that led Michael's brother, Rep. Joe Kennedy, to drop out of the Massachusetts governor's race and announce his retirement from Congress.

"The Globe is a very liberal institution, but at the same time it is far less unfairly liberal than it was 10 or 15 years ago," says Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, a former Republican campaign aide. "I see in the Storin era a real attempt to rectify the tilt that used to exist here."

But Jacoby himself has run afoul of the Globe culture. Last fall he criticized Harvard activists who tried to block a discussion by a Christian group that believes homosexuality is sinful. The column brought complaints from two gay copy editors at the Globe. The paper's ombudsman, Jack Thomas, who had assailed Jacoby for "homophobic" columns, called the latest piece "offensive."

"The position I expressed in that column was far and away the mainstream view of the public," Jacoby says. "Within the halls of the Boston Globe, it is not at all the mainstream view."

The Globe may have reached a turning point with its 1994 expose of an extended Puerto Rican family that was milking the welfare system for about $1 million a year. The piece ended with the family's matriarch being asked about the burden on the taxpayers: "Just tell them to keep paying."

"It was seen as the sort of story the Globe wouldn't have run pre-Storin because it damaged efforts to preserve the welfare system," says Dan Kennedy of the weekly Boston Phoenix.

Conservatives have noticed the change. "There's a sense that they're less the Kennedy cheering section than they used to be," says radio host David Brudnoy. "They're doing what they should be doing and not letting themselves be blandified, as so many other papers have. They go out on a limb."

Put to the Test
The racial repercussions began as soon as Patricia Smith was told to resign.

Even after the fakeries of 1995, Storin had submitted her work for a Pulitzer Prize. But in June, as new evidence surfaced, Smith admitted fabricating four columns; the Globe believes another 52 involve made-up characters. One of the four bogus columns featured an imaginary cancer victim named Claire, "a slightly chubby 142 pounds" who "still has her hair."

Smith's farewell column was a mixture of apology and defiance, which invited further recriminations. "Her fall had nothing to do with race; her rise had everything to do with it," wrote metro columnist Eileen McNamara.

Black reporters, too, felt tarred by Smith's disgrace. "They didn't want to confront her because she was black," one says. "Part of her success was built on the ignorance of those around her, who'd never been in those neighborhoods."

Some black activists, citing past allegations against Barnicle, quickly demanded his scalp. The Globe began examining 2 1/2 years of Barnicle's writing. He felt singed by Smith's flameout. "The Globe chose to put me on the rack to appear even-handed within the politically correct, agenda-driven journalism of the age," Barnicle declared.

With a bull's-eye on his back, Barnicle handed his critics a pistol just six weeks later. His Aug. 2 column contained a series of one-liners lifted from a book by comedian George Carlin; Barnicle said he had gotten them from a bartender. Storin, vacationing in Italy, suspended the columnist. Hours later, after learning that Barnicle had recommended the Carlin book on television earlier in the summer, Storin demanded his resignation.

What followed was six days of national humiliation. Barnicle campaigned for his job, backed by prominent media buddies like Don Imus and Tim Russert. As advertisers balked and readers threatened to walk, management seemed paralyzed. Finally, Storin agreed to let Barnicle off with a two-month suspension. Many Globe staffers were livid, feeling their boss had caved under pressure. Dozens of them, white and black, signed a protest petition.

At a staff meeting, even some mild-mannered reporters challenged Storin's flip-flop, saying he had hurt the paper's ethical image. Storin seemed stunned, and his legendary temper flared: "What do you want me to do? You want me to take it back? You want me to fire him?"

The controversial compromise held for one week. Last Wednesday afternoon, Storin told the newsroom that the Globe had accepted Barnicle's resignation. As in Smith's case, a column about cancer victims had proved to be his downfall. Ironically, it was an uplifting racial parable of a wealthy white family and a struggling black one forging a friendship as their young sons fought for survival.

But the fact-checkers at Reader's Digest, which had wanted to reprint the 1995 column, could find no evidence that the boys existed. Neither could Walter Robinson, after a former Digest editor notified the Globe. Barnicle's admission that he had never talked to either family – that his moving, detailed narrative was based on the account of a nurse he had met in a bar, and whose name he could not provide – ended his quarter-century career at the Globe.

Barnicle insists the tale is true and vows to "clear my name and remove the cloud that has been placed over my career." But the newsroom applauded when Storin said it was time for the Globe to move on.

For Patricia Smith, the scars have not yet healed. At a poetry slam in Austin last week, she said at least one of her Globe colleagues considered her "the nigger who came to dinner and just wouldn't leave. . . . My penance is that I will keep living to see myself keep dying. I can see the headlines: 'Disgraced, outcast, sinful ex-columnist just doesn't get it.' "

On the Hot Seat
Boston is buzzing over whether Matt Storin can survive. While New York Times executives have given the Globe's management free rein, they cannot be happy with the recent turmoil. Nor can they be pleased that the Globe's circulation has dropped over the past five years, from 509,000 to 462,000. A Times editorial that accused the Globe of initially favoring "a white guy with the right connections" sent shock waves across Morrissey Boulevard.

Some colleagues doggedly defend Storin. "No editor at any newspaper in the country has been under the kind of pressure and criticism he has faced in the last two months," says Robinson. "Matt Storin is as tough and gritty a newspaper editor as I have ever worked for. He's a guy with very high ethical standards."

It is less than 24 hours since he dumped Barnicle, and Storin looks beleaguered, anxious to retreat to his Maine vacation home. "I bear the responsibility," he says. "But I also think I'm the unluckiest editor in America."

Storin is aware of the tales of his red-faced outbursts, and insists they are exaggerated. "I have a temper," he says, but "you'll have to work pretty hard to find someone abused by me."

Soon after the interview ends, Joe Williams, an assistant metro editor, sends Storin a computer message asking him to meet with the Globe's minority staffers. Storin comes out of his office, berates Williams in front of the city desk, scolds him in his office for another three minutes, then storms out of the building. Storin later calls to apologize. Clearly, the demons have not been fully exorcised.

"It's been a terrible time," says Ben Bradlee Jr., the deputy managing editor. "Everyone realizes we've taken a hit. It just can't get any worse."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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