|NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH?|
August 24, 1998
|JIM LEHRER: Facts and fiction in newspaper columns: Our media correspondent, Terence Smith, explores that story.
MIKE BARNICLE, Former Boston Globe Columnist: (August 11) You can accuse me of sloppiness. Then I plead guilty. Intellectual laziness, I plead guilty. Plagiarism, no.
TERENCE SMITH: It was just two weeks ago that Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle offered the public his mea culpa. And editor Matthew Storin announced that Barnicle would be suspended without pay for two months. Barnicle was accused of lifting jokes from a book by comedian George Carlin without attribution. Over his 25-year career Barnicle had become a Boston fixture, as identifiable with the city as Beacon Hill. He was also a regular contributor to this broadcast, where he appeared as a regional commentator. The Globe had at first asked Barnicle to resign for using the Carlin jokes, but he fought the decision.
MIKE BARNICLE: (August 6) I think it's very callous treatment. I think that in this business of ours I think we probably accord better treatment to child molesters in terms of calling their lawyers before we throw them into the hopper.
TERENCE SMITH: But last week, more allegations of fabrication and plagiarism surfaced, and Barnicle was forced to resign. At issue was a 1995 column entitled "Through pain, a common bond," an emotionally wrenching tale of children hospitalized with cancer. It was vintage Barnicle, but according to Globe editor Matthew Storin, the Globe could not confirm the story. Storin said of Barnicle, "He could offer no account of attempting to check out details of the story." Then last week the Boston Phoenix, a weekly, charged that it had what it called the most damning evidence of all that Barnicle had plagiarized A.J. Liebling's 1961 biography of Earl Lall. The day of his resignation Barnicle defended the column about the two young boys in an interview with Brian Williams of MSNBC.
MIKE BARNICLE: A nurse told me that story. She relayed the story to me through a telephone operator at the Globe, who heard and listened to the story. She believed the story. I believed the story. I was called yesterday morning on it about 9:30. The Globe was under siege. I was asked to come up with facts and verification for it within a two- or three-hour period. I was unable to.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Is your position that you ended up accidentally filing a column that contained wrong information that was perhaps hearsay, that you didn't go for a second source?
MIKE BARNICLE: It was based on what I was told and I believed.
TERENCE SMITH: As to the plagiarism charge, Barnicle says he didn't lift quotes from A.J. Liebling's book. Barnicle is the second Globe columnist to resign in the last few months. Columnist Patricia Smith was forced out in June, after admitting that she had fabricated characters in her columns.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, for more on this controversy and on the role of newspaper columnists, we'll talk to three veteran journalists. Jimmy Breslin has written columns about life on the streets of New York City for decades. He's also the author of ten books. Juan Williams has been a reporter, editor, and columnist for the Washington Post. And Ann Marie Lipinski is managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.
Let me ask all three of you really. What's the lesson of the Barnicle affair, and, for that matter, of Patricia Smith's resignation about columns and columnists? Ann Marie.
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI, Managing Editor, the Chicago Tribune: One of the things that occurs to me and that has been troubling is it seems it's been a victory of style over substance in those two cases and in a couple of others that we've seen recently. One of the things that is elemental to being a good columnist is being a good reporter, and one cannot get around the necessities of reporting by pretty writing, or even—or clever writing, that the basics of being a really fine columnist are no different than the basis of being a really fine beat reporter. And in the cases of the columnists who have endured, they have all been terrific journalists, understand the difference between fact and fiction, and know that writing around something or making something up is not—it's not a privilege that comes with being a columnist. There aren't additional privileges to manufacture information.
TERENCE SMITH: Jimmy Breslin, what do you think a reader has the right to expect from a columnist?
JIMMY BRESLIN, Author/Columnist: Names and addresses, the names spelled right, and I think they can expect a day's work from you. They don't know, as they read something, that you have done a lot of walking around, a lot of interviewing, but they get the idea that someone cared enough to put some work into this piece they're reading because the chemistry of the piece has work in it, and that's the whole game.
TERENCE SMITH: So in other words—
JIMMY BRESLIN: You know how well you're doing with a column. You can tell by your feet, if you've been around. I still—I mean, I would put my whole case in 19—I don't know—1994—there was a police riot at city hall in New York City, 10,000 police rioted, and I heard them calling out racial names, which we'll let go here, but they called it, and the next morning the New York Times noted that my piece came out—the New York Times pointedly said five times reporters covered the demonstration and never heard the word. And I just sat there and waited, and, of course, police then played a tape and that's all you heard. You know, they were trying to get cute with me. And with that—that's my case—goodbye, I can listen, I can look, I can hear, I can be there, and I am through with it. And I don't know any other way to do the work.
TERENCE SMITH: So they expect and they should expect fact, not fiction. Juan, let me ask you this, your colleague on the Washington Post, Richard Cohen, has described column writing and columnists as literary kleptomaniacs and has said, you know, a nice, neat, perfectly packaged story, human story, doesn't come along twice a week on the schedule of columnist.
JUAN WILLIAMS, Columnist, The Washington Post: Absolutely right. And the thing is, though you have different kinds of columnists, Richard Cohen, I think, for a long time, for example, was a metro columnist at the Washington Post. Now, he's an op-ed columnist—filling different roles: Jimmy Breslin in New York, Mike Barnicle—we've been talking about in Boston—Mike Royko in Chicago—almost become staples of the local culture, local lure—a hurricane out in San Francisco.
TERENCE SMITH: Jimmy.
JIMMY BRESLIN: I couldn't disagree with you more. I went to—that Princess Diana thing—and I do over there the same as I do here—I went to Abafan in Wales where they once had had a tragedy with a grammar school, and a lot of children killed in a slide of a coal tip or something, and they had—in the pouring rain they still had the cemetery decorated—she was the Princess of Wales, so I wanted to see what it meant to them. And, of course, all it meant to them was they couldn't wait to move out of Abafan because it's a dreary, desperate living of a town, but I went there. That's the same thing I do in New York.
JUAN WILLIAMS: I think—I'm not—
JIMMY BRESLIN: There is no difference where you are. Location has nothing to do with it. A day's work in London, in Leeds, or in New York, or Boston, it's all the same.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Well, I'm not arguing that point with you, but what I'm saying is I think people expect it; they read Jimmy Breslin—they get a sense of a New Yorker's view, even if you are in Leeds or wherever, they think of you as a New York columnist, and I think that if you look at—wait a second—if you look at the Washington Post, we have columnists who fill different functions. There are columnists who work solely on the op-ed page, and sometimes there are columnists who cover specific areas of the world, whether it be the Pentagon or whether it be identified as a conservative or a liberal—some newspapers now you have column left, column right—try to give that kind of view.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask Ann Marie Lipinski, do you fact-check columnists? Do you hold them to the same standards that you do reporters on the Chicago Tribune?
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI: We do hold them to the same standards that we hold our reporters to, and in some sense, columnists have an out-sized influence on a newspaper, both good and in the case of Barnicle and Smith bad. Were a reporter to have done something akin to what Smith or Barnicle did, I think the effect on the Globe and on the profession and where that story was played throughout the country certainly would have been far less. So the sense—the notion that one should expect less of a columnists or check less or vet less or challenge less strikes me as lopsided.
TERENCE SMITH: You allow no poetic license?
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI: I wouldn't say—poetic license always troubles me because poetry implies fiction and fictional license is worrisome to me. I think you allow them certainly license by way of interpretation. They're allowed to opine in places that regular beat reporters are not. But you don't allow them reporting license. You can't—you can't change the rules for what are the basic building blocks of what we do every day.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Let me ask Jimmy Breslin this. Jimmy, will you tell me now that you have never made up a character, never embroidered a situation, never given it a little extra spin for effect.
JIMMY BRESLIN: In what are we talking about—a racetrack character, a gambling character? Certainly. What are you talking about? Do you want humor—some bawdy person—or are you harboring a police riot, writing about a police riot at city hall—involving race? Are you doing anything involving race in Alabama or Chicago or that King tried to have a march? That's where you've got to be so accurate that it's scary, and you can get wiped out and with a bad day, but the other stuff—what do you want—I don't make up the characters. You don't have to. There are two characters a week in any city on earth. Mr. Cohen said there are, and he couldn't be more wrong—there's two, there's twenty-two—just get out and look for them—and they have some fun. If it's a character in a light situation, the guy's trying to have humor, I mean, Mr. Royko, God rest his soul, in Chicago would have a neighborhood Polish person he could quote a lot. Come on. Buchwald has a Washington person he quotes.
TERENCE SMITH: I think people understood.
JIMMY BRESLIN: Yes, absolutely.
TERENCE SMITH: In Royko's column that that was not a—
JIMMY BRESLIN: Well, I had a—I had a gangster here in New York—Ranochio with one eye—he only had one eye and he stayed in a candy store with a wolf, and he ran all of crime. Well, come on—
TERENCE SMITH: Juan Williams, let me ask you this: Patricia Smith had to resign immediately as a result of her situation. Mike Barnicle held on for two weeks and actually garnered a good deal of support from the journalistic fraternity before the end came, and when it came, it came swiftly. Two different standards?
JUAN WILLIAMS: No. I think that there was a different crime committed in each case, and one was plagiarism in the Barnicle case. In the Smith case this was total fabrication, and I think that in some sense you are fooling the reader, fooling the editor, and if that's a level of deception that compromises the integrity of the whole newspaper, I don't think you can truck and tolerate that. But in the Barnicle case it was also a factor that I think he'd been around so long, and that he was white, that he had a network of support that ranged from Don Imus on the radio to Mike—you know, to Tim Russert here in Washington—he had lots of friends in strong places, including the advertising people at Staples, who were willing to stand up for him. I think most black journalists in this country don't have that kind of support. But let me just pick up on another thought here, which is the kind of journalism that Jimmy Breslin's been talking about is really a take-off of the reporter, given the opportunity to have a broader span and really speak from a larger pulpit, if you will, in the newspaper, and become identified as a voice of the city. There are lots of columnists in Washington who are perspective columnists, who do a lot of cogitating and thinking and going over issues and offering you a different perspective than you might have had. In all of this there is selective editing that takes place, because these people aren't necessarily held to the same standard as good reporting. You say, are you fair? You would never say to many of these columnists, are you fair? In fact, you would say to them, I want your point of view and perspective; I don't expect you to be fair. Accurate—yes; fair—no.
TERENCE SMITH: All right.
JIMMY BRESLIN: There's one word you're leaving out.
TERENCE SMITH: What's that, Jimmy?
JIMMY BRESLIN: Boring. That's a felony! (laughter among group) These fellows writing—I mean, it's a felony—your sentences are made of balsawood.
TERENCE SMITH: Which is the greater felony?
JIMMY BRESLIN: The boring—
TERENCE SMITH: Is boring or fiction?
JIMMY BRESLIN: Boring, because your newspaper folds with boring people.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, that sounds as though you're justifying fiction.
JIMMY BRESLIN: No. I'm not justifying fiction. You don't have to have either/or in this world, but you certainly can do without boring.
TERENCE SMITH: All right.
JIMMY BRESLIN: Just go out and do a day's work and the product will be boring. These fellows write boring because they're lazy. They don't do a thing. Acedia—a-c-e-d-i-a—look it up in the dictionary—slow fullness at high noon—that's what they practice.
TERENCE SMITH: Ann Marie Lipinski—is there a rub-off effect of this sort of a situation on journalists and journalism in general?
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI: I think there is. I think that the stories have hurt not just the Boston Globe but have hurt the profession in general. I called John Cassin, who is one of our lead columnists at the Tribune, yesterday, and I asked him that question. I asked if he'd been hearing from readers, and he said he hadn't—he hadn't heard that they were more skeptical of him, but he felt internally that he had a higher burden of proof with everything he did, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Mary Schmeek, another one of our columnists, told me that after the Patricia Smith incident, she sat down and she pulled every column she'd written for this newspaper—and that's three a week for the past year—and she re-read every single column and asked herself, is there a syllable in any of these columns that a reader could go back and question in light of everything that's happened to colleagues of hers throughout the profession. I think that's a healthy response on the part of journalists. We had a staff-wide seminar at the Tribune a couple of weeks ago to talk about these issues. People are second-guessing and questioning it. I think that's healthy. What's scary to me is at the same time that we're doing this I imagine our readers are doing the same thing, questioning and second-guessing things that they may not have prior to this.
TERENCE SMITH: That's almost surely the case. Let me thank all three of you. You've certainly not been guilty of the felony of boring.
JIM LEHRER: For the record, Mike Barnicle is no longer a regional commentator for the NewsHour. That ended when he left the Boston Globe, because the regulars on our regional panel all write for newspapers.