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Globe Columnist Refuses to Resign in Plagiarism Probe

August 07, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — At this city's largest newspaper, a standoff continued on Thursday, as Boston Globe editors demanded the resignation of longtime columnist Mike Barnicle and Barnicle steadfastly refused to offer it.

"I've done nothing wrong," declared Barnicle, a Boston institution whose three-day-a-week column has led the Globe's Metro section for more than 25 years.

Newspaper executives late Wednesday said he had used "poor judgment" for lifting items from comedian George Carlin's best-selling book "Brain Droppings" in an Aug. 2 column that contained random thoughts he claimed as his own. The transgression was brought to the Globe's attention by a reader who also notified the Boston Herald, which happily splashed the news across its front page. The Barnicle affair also made Page 1 in his own paper, right below the latest story about former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

Barnicle was first suspended for a month without pay after he insisted he had not read Carlin's book. But when word reached Globe editor Matthew V. Storin on vacation in Italy that in June Barnicle recommended the book to viewers on his local television show, Storin called on Barnicle to step down.

"I made nothing up. There was no intentional deceit. There were no victims. As a result of what I did, I have had 25 years of my life . . . flushed down the drain," Barnicle told radio host Don Imus. Imus and the TV station, WCVB, strongly defended Barnicle and said he didn't deserve to lose his job.

The stalemate added further tension to a newsroom that has been troubled since fellow columnist Patricia Smith was dismissed less than two months ago for fabricating material. The departure of Smith, who is black, made Globe editors targets for allegations of racism and sexism. The uproar over Smith also stirred up long-bubbling criticism of Barnicle.

Barnicle, 55, has positioned himself as a champion of the working class. He often writes columns in street vernacular and with a conversational flair that made readers feel they were with him in the bars or back streets of the blue-collar districts of Dorchester or Roxbury. Critics contended that the columnist, a former speech writer for the late Robert F. Kennedy, wrote many of those features from his home in Lincoln, one of Boston's priciest suburbs.

In a city known for chummy politics, Barnicle cultivated close relationships with 2 1/2 decades of elected officials. He cited informants deep within the police and fire departments. Often he held public figures up to ruthless ridicule, portraying former Gov. and Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis, for example, as little more than a height-challenged buffoon.

Boston magazine recently reinstated the "Barnicle Watch" column it launched six years ago when a young reporter questioned the existence of such characters as Tommy Boyle, Rita Mae Jackson, Jo-Jo Fallego and a Fed Ex driver named LuLu. Searching the city's homeless shelters, records at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, local voter rolls and elsewhere, the magazine was unable to locate any of them.

Staffers on Thursday were awaiting Storin's return from Italy and the presumed resolution of the deadlock. The matter took on new urgency for the paper's editor: The Globe was purchased in 1993 by the New York Times Co. A five-year agreement guaranteeing editorial independence to the Boston paper expires in October.

In the newsroom, the switchboard was overwhelmed by calls from readers. An editorial page staffer was near tears because he said the situation reflected so poorly on his paper and on his profession. A writer who has worked at the paper even longer than Barnicle wondered how, "given the climate this summer, he could possibly have done this."

In 1990, criminal-law expert Alan Dershowitz reportedly won a $75,000 settlement after claiming that Barnicle invented an unsavory remark about Asian women and pinned the Harvard law professor's name to it. Thursday, Dershowitz called Barnicle "a recidivist fabricator" and "the Boston Globe's ethnic warrior."

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