The Boston Phoenix
January 21 - 28, 1999

[Don't Quote Me]

Comeback kid?

Mike Barnicle returns to Channel 5's Chronicle amid well wishes from his friends -- and jeers from the newsroom

Don't Quote Me by Dan Kennedy

Mike Barnicle Mike Barnicle returned to work this week. And his comeback piece for WCVB-TV's Chronicle -- the former Boston Globe columnist's second professional home since 1982 -- should make for some pretty compelling television. Scheduled to air next month, the segment will take a close-up look at coronary-bypass surgery, a subject Barnicle is intimately familiar with, having had his own chest sawed open for an overhaul last fall.

After months of near-inactivity forced by his humiliating downfall at the Globe and then by ill health, Barnicle is back at Channel 5. In a brief interview on the station's newscast last week, a wan-looking but seemingly happy Barnicle talked about "looking forward to going back to work, to doing the very best that I can do." Channel 5 president and general manager Paul La Camera, a personal friend of Barnicle's, issued a strong statement of support, calling him "a uniquely gifted writer and storyteller." The staff of Chronicle, a half-hour magazine-style show broadcast weekdays at 7:30 p.m., seems pleased as well. "People make mistakes," says Chronicle producer Stella Gould. "But I'm a Barnicle fan. I think he has a voice that needs to be heard."

Returning to Chronicle is a huge step for Barnicle. Following his departure from the Globe last summer amid revelations that he had fabricated characters and quotes in one column and plagiarized in another, Barnicle took a 90-day leave from Channel 5. At the time, a well-placed source told the Phoenix that it was unlikely Barnicle would ever be back. But La Camera -- described by some as a strait-laced choirboy who finds Barnicle's bad-boy persona endearing -- soon began to soften. Equally important, Barnicle is friends with the newscast's co-anchors, Natalie Jacobson and Chet Curtis, and with Chronicle's co-anchors, Mary Richardson and Peter Mehegan. Barnicle's return, delayed once because of his heart surgery, was considered all but inevitable by the time La Camera formally announced it on January 11.

But despite the on-the-record happy talk, a number of serious journalists at Channel 5 are seriously pissed. La Camera has tried to defuse the tension by promising that Barnicle will not be used in the station's news programming (at least, he says, not in the "foreseeable future"). But reporters nevertheless wonder what Barnicle's return says about Chronicle, long lauded for high journalistic standards despite its often fluffy tone. Their grumbling is compounded by ongoing concerns about the future of Channel 5's newscasts, once considered the best in the country, which now emulate the fast pacing and glitzy packaging (though not, as yet, the sensationalism) of WHDH-TV (Channel 7), 'CVB's downmarket rival in the ratings war.

Not that this discontent is expressed openly. Indeed, three newsroom sources -- all respected veteran journalists -- refused to discuss their opposition to Barnicle's return on the record because they feared La Camera would retaliate. "You don't want me to talk about it. Actually, you do want me to talk about it, but I've got nothing to say. I enjoy being employed," said one. Said another: "Paul is very vindictive."

It is a standard journalistic hazard of reporting on institutional discontent: those on the team are happy to speak openly, but dissent is expressed off the record. Readers, understandably wary of quotes that aren't attached to names, discount their credibility. "No one likes to see people quoted as anonymous sources. I wish people had the courage to be identified," says La Camera. Yet it takes more courage for a source to speak out against her or his employer -- even on a not-for-attribution basis -- than to go with the flow.

In this case, the reason for the discontent is simple: Barnicle is back in the big time, or at least Boston's version of the big time, without ever having truly addressed what happened to him last summer. Chronicle isn't the gonzo Imus in the Morning, for which Barnicle is doing weekly commentaries, or ESPN The Magazine, for which Barnicle profiled football coach/pal Bill Parcells a couple of months ago. Instead, it's a respected local show that gives Barnicle an enormous amount of visibility -- and that pays him what is believed to be in the neighborhood of $150,000 a year. Not the $250,000 a year he was pulling down at the Globe, but not exactly minimum wage, either.

Certainly some critics would oppose Barnicle's return under any circumstances. "For Channel 5 to be doing this is just an embarrassment," says a reporter for a rival TV station. "There's no concept of the fruit of the poisoned tree," adds a disgusted Channel 5 reporter. "If I was working at Chronicle, I would be offended."

The real issue for Channel 5, though, isn't that it's taking Barnicle back, but rather that it's taking him back without really confronting the journalistic issues raised by his return to the airwaves. In their written public statements last week, both La Camera and Barnicle took the minimalist approach. La Camera referred merely to Barnicle's recommending "a book of humor which he later acknowledged he had not read" -- a reference to George Carlin's Brain Droppings, the book Barnicle somehow managed to plug on Chronicle and plagiarize from in his Globe column without (at least according to Barnicle) ever having cracked the binding. Barnicle, referring to his largely fabricated 1995 column about two kids with cancer that proved to be his final undoing, confessed to "laziness" and said he "failed to be factually accurate in a column written three years ago, one of 4000 I wrote over a quarter-century. It was flawed and incorrect, and I am sorry to have disappointed anyone."

As anyone who has followed Barnicle's career knows, neither La Camera's nor Barnicle's statement comes close to describing the extent of Barnicle's journalistic misdeeds. Indeed, Barnicle had been suspected of fabricating characters and quotes from the moment he became a Globe columnist, in 1973. In the early 1990s Boston magazine published convincing evidence that Barnicle had piped several columns; Barnicle denied the charge, but declined to offer specifics. Likewise, the Carlin episode was one of a half-dozen or so involving plagiarism and near-plagiarism. The late Chicago legend Mike Royko once publicly complained that Barnicle had ripped him off at least three times. And last August 19, just several hours before the Globe finally let Barnicle go for good, the Phoenix reported that Barnicle had lifted extensively from an A.J. Liebling book, complete with idiosyncratic spelling, in a 1986 column.

Nor could Barnicle's misbehavior be attributed simply to "laziness." Twice he was accused in libel suits of putting vicious, racist words in people's mouths. In the first case, involving a gas-station owner whom Barnicle alleged to have used the N-word, the Globe lost, and paid a $40,000 judgment. In the second case, the Globe paid Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz a reported $75,000 rather than defend Barnicle against the accusation that the columnist had made up a disparaging Dershowitz quote about Asian women being "so submissive."

Barnicle, though, continues to insist that he was a victim of "one of those messy media feeding frenzies," as he put it in his statement. Or even a victim of political correctness, lined up in the cross hairs after his African-American counterpart, Patricia Smith, was forced to leave the Globe last June when her own fabrications were revealed. He may be right that his and Smith's fates were linked, but it's Barnicle's fault alone that his critics had so much material to work with. And he has demonstrated a stunning lack of insight into the cause of his downfall. "You know why this happened to me?" Barnicle reportedly told a visitor last fall. "Because I'm a 55-year-old male, I'm white, I'm Irish, and I'm Catholic."

For all that, Barnicle is a gifted television performer, and many of his colleagues seem genuinely pleased that he's returning. From reporters David Ropeik ("I think it's wonderful") and Gail Huff ("I think he deserves the opportunity") to former producers Lisa Schmid, who made a mid-'80s documentary with Barnicle on veterans visiting Vietnam ("I had a great experience with him"), and Jerry Kirschenbaum ("I had no problems with Mike; he was a professional guy"), it's clear that plenty of people will be rooting for Barnicle.

Nor are there many concerns that he'll cross an ethical line again: the collaborative nature of television, in which "talent" such as Barnicle works with a team of producer/reporters, photographers, and editors, makes it nearly impossible to make something up and get away with it. And despite Barnicle's well-earned reputation for taking a cavalier approach to his TV career, Channel 5 will, presumably, be his first priority now. (Although Chronicle executive producer Mark Mills says there are no plans to make Barnicle's irregular hours more regular.)

There's no doubt that Barnicle paid a heavy price for his transgressions, and Chronicle would seem to be the ideal platform for him to rebuild his reputation. Indeed, Barnicle now occupies a familiar role in our confessional talk-show culture. There is just one missing ingredient: the confession. Nor are we likely to see one anytime soon. Asked whether Barnicle will address his departure from the Globe on Chronicle, Mills responded: "To have him say something about it implies going back and looking at the whole thing. And we don't want to do that."

In his commentaries on Imus, Barnicle likes to skewer Bill Clinton as a selfish, self-absorbed yuppie. Actually, Barnicle's got a lot in common with Clinton. Both are eager to confess to minor sins that are entirely beside the point. Neither will address the major misdeeds that are the true cause of their current problems. In both cases, their tormentors would be far more willing to forgive and move on if the objects of their criticism would simply stand up and tell the truth. But Barnicle is no more likely to do that than Clinton.

"It's the Greek tragedy, without the redeeming quality of some sort of learning, even if it's too late," says a Channel 5 reporter who opposes Barnicle's return.

Actually, it's never too late. Mike Barnicle's been given a second chance. It's up to him what he does with it. He can simply resume his TV career as if nothing had ever happened. Or he can show that he's the kind of standup guy he professes to admire so much.

He can start by doing something that would admittedly require a strong stomach: he can apologize to Alan Dershowitz.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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