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Public Poorer Without Dooleyism

Media: Mike Barnicle gave the working man a pithier voice, but was done in by the prigs.

September 13, 1998|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation, the New York Press and other publications

When I first came to New York in the early 1970s, I was immediately struck by the popularity of demotic columns. These were first-person narratives in the Daily News and the New York Post, in which the columnist moved among the ordinary folk who expressed themselves in pithy observations succinct with humor and colorful idiom.

I marveled at the amazing aptitude of these ordinary folk--taxi drivers, store keepers, street people--for the wry remark that helped keep the column trotting along. I also noted that in columns by Murray Kempton, New Yorkers tended to speak in long paragraphs, often baroque in their locutions. The same New Yorkers, marshaled for a column by Jimmy Breslin, would sound more punchy.

It never crossed my mind that these fine columnists were fabricating quotes. And I'm sure they weren't. Good writers simply add those little touches--a stylish little semi-colon or an elegant turn of syntax, in Kempton's case--which made the quote "theirs."

I remembered those columns when I heard that Mike Barnicle was forced out by the Boston Globe for appropriating material from a variety of writers and also for supposedly inventing a story about sick children in a hospital. Barnicle's removal followed the forced departure of another Globe columnist, Patricia Smith, for similarly faking quotes and episodes.

It's wrong to misrepresent material, but I feel sorry for both of them. There's a certain lack of realism, a certain prissiness (rife in our profession at the moment) about what the functions of these columnists are, as well as a lack of sympathy for the demands placed upon them.

The problem began with Finley Peter Dunne, the great Irish-American Chicago-based columnist who invented the Irish barkeep Mr. Dooley in the first years of the century. Dunne didn't claim Mr. Dooley to be genuine, but Dooley's rich Irish locutions set the model for columnists in "ethnic" cities. Henceforth ordinary folk in such cities--Chicago, Boston, New York--had to match up to Dooleyspeak. Since ordinary folk usually speak in hesitant, half-articulated lumps of mangled syntax, columnists were forced to put apothegms into their mouths, giving their readers the flattering illusion that entire neighborhoods were able to spout Dooleyisms at the sight of a columnist's notebook.

What we can term the Dooley Factor placed a particularly heavy burden on black reporters and columnists like Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, as well as the Globe's Smith, hired to furnish weekly parables about African Americans. Less than anyone could they ever dare to be dull or mundane. Editors craved the kind of moving human dramas that only fiction can engender. Already carrying two strikes--being women and black--Cooke and Smith, under this tremendous pressure to turn in colorful drama, turned to fiction and paid the penalty.

One reason for Barnicle's firing was that a former Reader's Digest editor started trying to fact-check Barnicle's story about the kids in hospital. Barnicle says he heard it from a telephone operator on the Globe, who confirmed this and said she got it from a nurse's aide, now dead. In the old days this would have been quite enough. But we have the comical spectacle of a man from the Reader's Digest, which has probably printed more fantasies for a longer period than any other publication in the history of the United States, indignantly claiming that its researchers couldn't "verify" Barnicle's column.

All columnists worthy of the name quote from themselves, say the same thing over and over. It comforts the readers and gives them a sense of continuity. Herb Caen did. Murray Kempton did. The danger comes only when readers can recite your column from memory before they've read it.

Another Barnicle "crime": He borrowed jokes from George Carlin. So? Carlin probably borrowed the jokes from someone else.

I can't get too upset at the thought that sometimes a quote might have been improved upon. These columnists made their working-class subjects feel proud of the way they spoke, in the same way that French aristocrats gloried in the sentences thrust into their mouths by Marcel Proust. This is the proper function of art, and it is really too bad that Barnicle, who gave improper, blue-collar Bostonians a sense of self-worth through more than 4,000 columns, should have been so rudely treated by the prigs.

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