Globe columnist Mike Barnicle quits amid suspicions he fabricated column

Copyright © 1998
Copyright © 1998 The Associated Press

BOSTON (August 19, 1998 9:06 p.m. EDT -- Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle resigned under pressure Wednesday amid suspicions he fabricated a 1995 column about two children hospitalized with cancer.

The 25-year columnist known for his two-fisted, working-man's prose was already serving a two-month suspension without pay for lifting jokes from a book by George Carlin.

Globe editor Matthew V. Storin told the staff that he asked for and received Barnicle's resignation. The announcement drew clapping and laughter in the newsroom, which was sharply divided over his punishment for the earlier infraction.

In a statement to WCVB-TV, the newspaper's marquee columnist said his resignation was "the best thing for the paper." He did not return several telephone messages to The Associated Press, and nobody answered the door at his home.

Barnicle, 54, is the second Globe columnist to resign in the last few months. In June, Patricia Smith was forced out after admitting she had fabricated characters in four of her columns.

Earlier this month, the Globe came under fire for only suspending Barnicle, with black leaders and others accusing the newspaper of a double standard in essentially firing a black woman while protecting a middle-aged white man.

"It's obviously a sad day for the Globe in that we have to go through this again," said assistant metro editor Joe Williams, one of several staffers who last week drafted a statement opposing the paper's decision to suspend -- and not fire -- Barnicle.

"But it points to what we've been maintaining all along, that Barnicle's work was not beyond reproach, and the paper's decision to bring him back was a bad one. You never like to see anybody's career lie in ruins, but we all knew this was a possibility."

The latest Barnicle column to be questioned was a tale about two children -- one white, one black -- who became friends in the hospital. After the black child died, Barnicle wrote, the parents of the white child gave the black child's parents $10,000.

Reader's Digest attempted to reprint the story, but its fact-checkers who tried to verify the story through Barnicle at the magazine determined that it was a fabrication. The discrepancy was ignored at the time, but this week a former Reader's Digest editor, Kenneth Tomlinson, contacted the Globe.

Barnicle claimed he got the story from a nurse from another hospital, but he did not know her name. A check of state cancer death records showed no record of any black child of the age of the boy in the column dying of cancer in the state in the year Barnicle recounted.

Storin said Barnicle could give no account of checking out the story, and that he did not know the names of any of the people he had quoted in that column.

"In light of his failure to follow the most basic reporting requirements, as well as the duplicitous way in which the story was written, it is clear that Mike Barnicle can no longer write for The Boston Globe," Storin said in a statement.

Barnicle's resignation came even as The Boston Phoenix, a weekly newspaper, was getting ready to publish a story saying that Barnicle had lifted material without attribution from writer A.J. Liebling for a 1986 column.

The resignation came a week after Barnicle fended off demands from Storin that he resign for using commedian George Carlin's wisecracks without attribution in an Aug. 2 column. After an outpouring of public support for Barnicle, Storin relented, and Barnicle was instead suspended without pay.

Barnicle claimed he hadn't even read the Carlin book, even though he had recommended it on TV, and he refused to offer his resignation, saying his transgression was lazy and stupid, but not akin to Smith's offenses.

In backing down, Storin said he had concluded that the punishment of resignation "did not fit the crime."

Questions about the credibility of Barnicle's newspaper work have been raised for years.

Boston Magazine began a "Barnicle Watch" in the early 1990s to try to track down what it suspected were some dubious Barnicle sources.

In this month's issue, coincidentally, the magazine resurrected the feature. It focused on two 1991 columns that contain characters who could not be found by a reporter and, later, a private investigator, despite checks of Internet sources, phone books, voter-registration rolls, and birth, death and tax records.

Also mentioned in the magazine were two columns that elicited complaints from famed Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who has since died, that Barnicle borrowed his material.

In addition, defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz once was reported to have won $75,000 from the paper to settle a claim Barnicle had quoted him as saying things he never said.

Following the Smith flap, the Globe had reviewed 364 of Barnicle's columns since January 1996 and found they met professional standards.

"If you examine his work over several years, he's not only sloppy or lazy ... but he's been fabricating things all along," said Nick Daniloff, head of Northeastern University's journalism department.

By LESLIE MILLER, Associated Press Writer