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Mike Barnicle and the Ethics of Journalism

Thesis: Barnicle’s continuing career is indicative of a serious flaw in the world of

journalism ethics. News corporations have looked past Barnicle’s ethical slip-ups and

media professionals have made excuses for him. Barnicle even made light of the situation

in form of sarcastic commentary (Steinberg). Barnicle’s continuing triumphs degrade the

essence of journalism.

In a sense, Mike Barnicle‟s story is not an uncommon one. The process of his

downfall was similar to that of other fallen journalists: complaints about the integrity of

his work arose, a subsequent investigation found previously overlooked discrepancies in

past articles, and he was asked to resign. Allegations against Barnicle included publishing

George Carlin jokes without citing the comedian, fabricating stories about cancer patients

and quoting individuals with whom he had never spoken, all serious infractions in the

world of journalism (Barringer, “Standoff”). He credited bartending pals and anonymous

sources with presenting him the material, and though he never officially admitted fault,

Barnicle ultimately resigned from The Boston Globe. That is where Barnicle‟s similarity

to other fallen journalists ends, for his resignation did not signal the end of his career.

Barnicle went on to publish articles in George magazine, and later wrote for both The

Daily News and The Boston Herald (Steinberg). Barnicle‟s continuing career is indicative

of a serious flaw in the world of journalism ethics. News corporations have looked past

Barnicle‟s ethical slip-ups and media professionals have made excuses for him. Barnicle

even made light of the situation in form of sarcastic commentary (Steinberg). Barnicle‟s

continuing triumphs degrade the essence of journalism.


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The prelude to what should have been Barnicle‟s undoing began in August 1998.

An August 2nd column generated controversy, for Barnicle printed „thoughts‟ that were

remarkably similar to those in a book by George Carlin. “Mr. Barnicle, for example,

wrote in his column, „Someday I'd love to see the Pope appear on his balcony and

announce the baseball scores.‟ In his book, Mr. Carlin writes, „Someday I wanna see the

Pope come out on that balcony and give the football scores,‟” (Barringer, “Boston Globe

Asks”). When confronted by Boston Globe editor Matthew Storin, Barnicle claimed that

he had never read Carlin‟s book, “but had used jokes given him by a friend without

checking their origins,” (Barringer, “Boston Globe Asks”). In response to the infraction,

Storin suspended Barnicle without pay for a month (Barringer, “Boston Globe Asks”).

As news of Barnicle‟s suspension and claims of having never read Carlin‟s book

broke, local station WCVB-TV confirmed a guest appearance by Barnicle on June 22nd.

Barnicle recommended books for summer reading in the segment. Carlin‟s

“Braindroppings” was among them, which Barnicle stated “had a yuck on every page,”

(Barringer, “Boston Globe Asks”). The reference implied that Barnicle had read Carlin‟s

book, which he had denied when accused of plagiarizing the author. In response to the

conflicting information, Globe editors asked for Barnicle‟s resignation, a request with

which he refused to comply. Thus began the first step in Barnicle‟s worming his way out

of trouble. “Barnicle said he… had recommended the book based only on his familiarity

with Mr. Carlin‟s work over the years. [Barnicle] then referred to other recent

embarrassments to news organizations,” (Barringer, “Boston Globe Asks”).

Barnicle said, “If we in this business have gotten to the point where… telling

someone else‟s jokes without attribution… can be equated to saying mistakenly that
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Americans killed other Americans with nerve gas, with making up whole columns… if

we‟ve reached the point in this business where the two are equal, then God help us all,”

(Barringer, “Boston Globe Asks”). Storin, editor of the Globe, subsequently retracted the

demand for Barnicle‟s resignation. According to an editorial by Howell Raines, Storin

said “that his original decision had been hasty and that it was unfair to give [Barnicle] the

same penalty as Ms. Smith [who was charged with fabricating characters and their

stories], since his lapse was so much more marginal than hers,” (Raines). Barnicle

successfully pulled the wool over his editor‟s eyes here. The editor seemed to readily

accept his argument that since his wrong wasn‟t technically as bad as another journalist‟s

wrong, his punishment shouldn‟t rank within the same severity. Barnicle had plagiarized

and lied, yet his career would continue.

As is typical in stories of ethical infractions, Barnicle‟s plagiarizing Carlin wasn‟t

his only error. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, a former editor of Reader‟s Digest, first became

aware of one of Barnicle‟s slip ups in 1996. Tomlinson was touched by one of Barnicle‟s

articles, which detailed the relationship of cancer-stricken children who had become

friends while being treated. When the black youth passed away, the family of the white

youth was said to have sent the black youth‟s family a $10,000 check in remembrance

(O‟Brien). The story could not be printed before being confirmed by the Digest‟s fact-

checkers, who could find no evidence of such an occurrence (Barringer, “Boston Globe

Columnist Resigns”). Tomlinson had wanted one of his writers to report on the story, but

couldn‟t generate any enthusiasm for the article. The fabrication fell to the wayside and

Barnicle escaped trouble for the time being. When the plagiarism allegations arose,

Tomlinson was sure Barnicle‟s dishonest career was over. And when it was apparent that
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Barnicle‟s ethical failures would slip through the cracks yet again, Tomlinson took

action. He contacted Storin regarding the 1996 column. Confronted with another

allegation, Barnicle resigned (Wiley).

Prior to his resignation, Barnicle had co-written an article with Peter Maas for

George magazine. Magazine editors had contacted the two journalists to write a story

about the Bulger brothers (Kuzcynski). In light of the allegations against Barnicle, the

article was not published until its facts had been carefully checked. Executive editor

Richard Blow was quoted as saying, “it was worthwhile to take as much time as

necessary to make sure that everything in the article that checked out,” (Kuzcynski).

However, the reasoning behind the fact-checking appeared to be that “Mike Barnicle‟s

ethical problems presented an easy avenue of critique for anyone who didn‟t like the

story,” (Kuzcynski). There was no mention of Barnicle‟s ethical problems as a concern—

in fact, Maas had also been involved in ethical scandals. George went on to publish the

article eight months later, and Barnicle‟s actions were without consequence once more.

Despite being aware of the allegations of many ethical infractions, the magazine

employed the journalist, thus degrading the journalism industry as a whole. An ethically

struggling writer wasn‟t punished with the loss of his career as a result of his actions—

instead, he was simply subjected to fact-checking.

The editors of George weren‟t the only ones willing to look past Barnicle‟s

infractions. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, Barnicle‟s editor defended

him: “Mike Barnicle is human; he made mistakes in those 26 years… and although he

never conceded that he made things up, he paid dearly. Two citations… and the three

million or so words he had written for The Globe over a quarter of a century were
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devalued, utterly and unfairly,” (Mulvoy). Mulvoy seems to excuse Barnicle‟s behavior

because some of what he wrote happened to be honest and factual. Despite his ethical

mistakes, Barnicle was hired to write for The Daily News and was later hired to write a

column for The Boston Herald. Editor Ken Chandler echoed Mulvoy‟s sentiments,

stating that “the two columns that led to [Barnicle‟s] departure… were not representative

of the nearly 4,000 others he had filed for the newspaper,” (Steinberg). He concluded by

saying, “I think he‟s more than earned his stripes.” This is an absurd statement in a world

in which other journalists who have committed ethical infractions are shunned from other

organizations.

The open-armed acceptance that has greeted Barnicle after his ethical infractions

degrade the world of journalism. The man who once claimed that he should be given a

pass because his actions weren‟t comparable to fabricating a story truly made a mockery

of journalism, for he was later accused of doing just that in the cancer patient story.

Furthermore, Barnicle has continued to take stabs at the industry when speaking in his

defense. “The rules were much looser [in the early years of his column]. You could get

by with giving them a nickname. You didn‟t have to give their shoe size, their hair color.

I am now going to provide people‟s Social Security numbers in the paper next to their

names,” he said (Steinberg). The man has gotten away with the equivalent of murder in

the world of journalism, and makes a mockery of everything the industry stands for.

Works Cited

Barringer, Felicity. “Boston Globe Asks a Columnist to Resign.” New York Times.
6 Aug. 1998. 20 Feb. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/06/us/
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boston-globe-asks-a-columnist-to-resign.html>.

Barringer, Felicity. “Boston Globe Columnist Resigns Over Authenticity of 1995 Story.”
New York Times. 20 Aug. 1998. 20 Feb. 2010.
<http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/20/us/
boston-globe-columnist-resigns-over-authenticity-of-1995-
story.html?pagewanted=1>.

Barringer, Felicity. “Standoff Between Boston Globe and Its Star Columnist Provokes
Turmoil in Newsroom.” New York Times. 7 Aug. 1998. 20 Feb. 2010.
<http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/07/us/
standoff-between-boston-globe-its-star-columnist-provokes-turmoil-
newsroom.html?pagewanted=1>.

Kuzcynski, Alex. “Media Talk; A Magazine Checks Up on Its Investigators.”


New York Times. 29 March 1999. 20 Feb. 2010.
<http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/29/business/
media-talk-a-magazine-checks-up-on-its-investigators.html>.

Mulvoy, Thomas F. Jr. “A Journalist‟s Mistakes.” New York Times. 29 May 2003.
20 Feb. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/29/opinion/
l-a-journalist-s-mistakes-881910.html>.

O‟Brien, Sinéad. “For Barnicle, One Controversy Too Many.”


American Journalism Review. Sept. 1998. 20 Feb. 2010.
<http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=192>.
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Raines, Howell. “Editorial Observer; The High Price of Reprieving Mike Barnicle.”
New York Times. 13 Aug. 1998. 20 Feb. 2010.
<http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/13/opinion/
editorial-observer-the-high-price-of-reprieving-mike-barnicle.html>.

Steinberg, Jacques. “Former Boston Globe Columnist Is Returning, but to a Rival.”


New York Times. 9 Mar. 2004. 20 Feb. 2010.
<http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/09/business/
former-boston-globe-columnist-is-returning-but-to-a-rival.html>.

Wiley, Ralph. “Boston Globe and Double Standard: A Tale of Affirmative Action.”
Find Articles. September 1998. 20 Feb. 2010.
<http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3812/is_199809/ai_n8814956>.