Mike Barnicle, eh??
Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle's active imagination finally brings him down.
BY TOM MASHBERG
BOSTON -- After narrowly escaping execution last week, Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle was finally forced to walk the plank today when it was revealed that he had made up yet another column, a 1995 tear-jerker about a black child and a white one who became friends when they were both hospitalized with cancer.
The veteran columnist was a favorite among journalism's old-boy network, as well as a major circulation draw, which is why the Globe continued to cut him slack for so long in the face of mounting evidence that he was a fabulist and plagiarist. Barnicle's pals in the national media like to paint him as a street scribe who boldly sets foot where J-school nancyboys daren't tread. But the truth is that Barnicle has been making it up and mailing it in from his manse in suburban Lincoln for 15 years. He turned the Globe into clown school by refusing to quit once he was caught lifting jokes from a George Carlin bestseller and then lying about it. While the newspaper's top brass fretted over what to do with their popular bad boy -- finally giving him a slap-on-the-wrist two-month suspension -- Barnicle turned Globe editor Matt Storin into a laughingstock just as the five-year anniversary of New York Times ownership of "the Glob" drew nigh.
But when an ex-Reader's Digest editor came forward this week, informing the Globe that the Digest had decided not to reprint Barnicle's 1995 weeper after they determined it was fabricated, it was finally all over for the columnist.
First, some disclosure: I currently write for the Globe's rival paper, the Boston Herald, and, from 1991 to 1994, I worked as a Globe reporter and had some nasty run-ins with Storin. Far be it from me to stick up for the man, but he was right to try to scrape Barnicle off the Globe's hull after the Carlin fiasco. Storin's mistake was to back down and let Barnicle keep his virtual no-show job once the 54-year-old metro auteur (who reportedly earns $250,000 a year to produce about 130 columns) went national with his refusal to bow out.
For anyone who missed it, here's the slapstick sequence of events. On Aug. 2, Barnicle ran a column of 36 banal bon mots under the headline "I Was Just Thinking ..." (Example: "Someday I'd love to see the Pope appear on his balcony and announce the baseball scores.") On Aug. 5, the Herald pantsed Barnicle by printing a piece showing how he filched 10 of his 36 insipid paragraphs from Carlin's book "Brain Droppings." Much merriment ensued.
Barnicle swore he'd never seen the Carlin book. The Globe, still reeling from the forced resignation two months ago of columnist Patricia Smith after she was caught inventing quotes, characters and stories, suspended Barnicle for one month. Later that day, mortified Globe execs found Barnicle on TV -- in a 6-week-old news clip -- recommending Carlin's book, and they asked him to resign. Barnicle said no.
On Aug. 6, Barnicle again took to the airwaves, telling "Imus," "Today," CNBC, ABC, NPR, et al., that he would not quit because he was being unfairly persecuted for "repeating some jokes." Last week, the Globe's overseers backed down, telling Barnicle he could return after a two-month suspension. End of story, hugs all around.
Until today. "It's obviously a sad day for the Globe in that we have to go through this thing again," a chagrined Globe assistant metro editor Joe Williams, one of several staffers who had called for Barnicle's firing after the Carlin stunt, told the Associated Press. Today's events underlined the fact that "the paper's decision to bring him back was a bad one," added Williams.
That's putting it mildly. Anyone in Beantown with one good eye could have seen that Barnicle was making it up as he went along. Barnicle Mike the Piper, we called him -- that rich feller whose quotes and characters seem a little too good to be true, and who gives the impression he's done his reporting in person when he's in fact done it by phone, if at all. (The term "to pipe" harks to doleful bagpipes you can practically hear in the distance as the fiction-is-better-than-truth tale unfolds, in 750 taut words.)
A little harmless piping has long been evident in big-city reportage. (Think of the "bystander" at a fatal fire or political event who pithily sums up the scene with just the right pinch of everyman poignancy.) But Barnicle was long suspected of piping whole columns and plagiarizing his betters. Here are samples of Barnicle's transgressions over the years, painstakingly re-reported in recent days by Boston Magazine senior editor Sean Flynn, and by the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Herald:
It went on and on. Long past his third strike, Barnicle played by rules that would deposit run-of-the-mill reporters into Janet Cooke purgatory.
But Barnicle had friends like Don Imus and Tim Russert and Marvin Kalb, and he moved product. When money talks, bullshit apparently doesn't have to walk.
Admit nothing, deny everything, was Barnicle's credo. As George Costanza taught us, "It's not a lie if you believe it." It worked for Barnicle Mike the Piper, just as it worked for President Clinton. Until this week.
SALON | Aug. 20, 1998
Tom Mashberg is a reporter for the Boston Herald. PHOTO: AP/WIDE WOR