The Boston Phoenix
August 20 - 27, 1998


Alive on 5

Unrest at Channel 5 -- but Barnicle stays

by Dan Kennedy

Nationally syndicated radio talk-show host Don Imus has taken a well-deserved pounding from some quarters for his staunch defense of his buddy Mike Barnicle. So let it be duly noted that when it comes to the ethics of television journalism, Imus actually espouses a higher standard than Barnicle does.

Also: Did Barnicle plagiarize A.J. Liebling?
Jason Gay's 50 reasons why Barnicle's column was predictable

After Barnicle was asked to resign from the Boston Globe, he appeared on Imus in the Morning to plead for his job. The Globe sought Barnicle's departure not because he'd lifted lines from George Carlin's Brain Droppings -- that initially earned Barnicle just a one-month suspension. But after he told Globe managers he hadn't read the book, it turned out he'd recommended it on Channel 5's Chronicle two months earlier.

Barnicle still insisted he hadn't read the book. Imus opined that it was wrong for him to push a book he hadn't read, but that it wasn't a fireable offense. Barnicle, though, replied that it wasn't a big deal -- that he saw nothing wrong with flogging a book whose covers he hadn't opened, as long as he was comfortable with the author's reputation.

It's that slippery standard -- along with its implied contempt for a medium that has treated him well -- that has many journalists at WCVB-TV in an uproar. Though a well-placed insider says the staff of Chronicle, the magazine show for which Barnicle has worked since 1982, is relatively sanguine about the Barnicle affair, hard-news reporters are "absolutely out of their minds with rage" that station management announced it would keep him -- a decision made even before the Globe took him back.

"There is disgust, there is embarrassment, and there is reluctance to have him doing news analysis," says this source. But with the November election not that far off, you can bet Barnicle will be sitting alongside Nat and Chet, telling Channel 5 viewers what it all means.

WCVB general manager Paul La Camera could not be reached.

Barnicle's comments to Imus are hardly uncharacteristic of his attitude toward TV. The Globe itself took note of Barnicle's appearance on NBC's Today show, when he told host Katie Couric: "I'm hoping that, you know, maybe someone out there will understand the mechanics of the TV business." He added: "I think Carlin's a funny guy. . . . I would promote practically any book, as long as it got people reading." And, repeatedly, Barnicle has defended his holding up Brain Droppings for the Channel 5 cameras by saying, in a dismissive tone, that the segment lasted "four seconds."

A 1986 Boston magazine story on Barnicle's second career as a TV star described him as being contemptuous of television and of his fellow employees, frequently blowing off shoots and doing little preparation before taping segments. When then-Channel 5 news director Phil Balboni (now head of New England Cable News) wrote a nasty message to Barnicle following a Globe column in which Barnicle said that TV news was "at its worst a carnival of fools," Barnicle reportedly responded: "Why don't you take a few days and get a grip on yourself. TV is not that serious a business . . . as you apparently are trying to prove."

As Boston Herald TV critic Monica Collins has observed, WCVB's quick decision to stand by its man was just another example of ratings -- and, thus, money -- coming before integrity.

It's too bad. Channel 5 is still the home of some of Boston's best journalists, but its newscasts have increasingly aped the nationwide trend toward faster pacing, shorter stories, and an aversion to depth. Barnicle is just another depressing sign that Channel 5's glory days in the 1970s and '80s are long gone.

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