In Boston, racial polarization is as much a part of everyday life as Red Sox games or cool wind off the bay. So when the Boston Globe last week fired Patricia Smith–the paper’s only black female columnist–because she’d fabricated quotes and characters in several Globe columns, a racial interpretation of the paper’s motives was almost inevitable.
Critics charged that at least one other Globe columnist–namely the street veteran Mike Barnicle–was guilty of journalistic sins no less serious than Smith’s. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz came forward with a charge he made against Barnicle in 1991–that Barnicle falsely attributed an offensive quote to him.
In a 1990 column, Barnicle wrote that in 1983, Dershowitz had said to him: “I love Asian women, don’t you? They’re. . . they’re so submissive.” Dershowitz claims to this day that Barnicle “simply made the whole thing up. . . .Nobody else at the Globe would be allowed to publish that column with what he had.” At the time, Dershowitz’s son–who’d been present during the conversation–backed his father’s version, but the paper took no public action against Barnicle. The Globe‘s ombudsman wrote then that it was “not a great day for ombudsmanship and credibility at the Globe.”
Some time later, when Barnicle was asked to reaffirm the Dershowitz quotation on a radio show, Barnicle said: “Y’know, [Dershowitz] has got a legitimate beef with me. I have, ah, we have tried to contact him. I feel badly about what happened to Alan Dershowitz. I apologize to Alan Dershowitz, but y’know, Alan’s got to get back to us.”
Dershowitz uses this to claim vindication, although a Globe publicist insists the two men “agreed to disagree.” Dershowitz further argues that the ouster of Smith and not Barnicle “raises serious questions of a double standard, possibly based on race, gender, and ethnicity.”
Dershowitz is not alone in questioning Barnicle’s methods. For several months in 1991 and 1992, Boston magazine ran a regular Barnicle Watch column, which poked credibility holes in the columnist’s work.
Lamar Graham, who wrote the Barnicle Watch column, told the Voice Monday that in one Barnicle column he examined, “absolutely nothing checked out.” Speaking only of columns from the early ’90s, he adds: “Maybe back then he was not so squeaky clean . . . I am unaware of any internal review [of Barnicle’s work] at the time. I think they sort of assiduously ignored it.”
In response to Dershowitz and others, the Globe announced over the weekend that they had investigated 364 Barnicle columns going back to 1996, and found no signs of made-up characters or quotes. “Obviously there are limitations to any such review,” said Globe editor Matthew Storin in a statement released Sunday. “But we believe these columns met professional standards.”
This does nothing to resolve the questions about Barnicle’s columns before 1996. On Monday, Barnicle and Storin were not taking calls; Globe publicist Richard Gulla said the two columnists’ cases were different “because Patricia Smith has admitted to fabricating items, and Barnicle has not.”
He added that the review of Barnicle columns had been done in a 48-hour period, and said that columns containing only “references to public figures, to people we know exist, were not checked.” Gulla said he did not know how many columns were actually examined. The Globe did not explore past allegations of fabrications because Storin’s “ground rules” did not take effect until 1996.
Essentially, then, the Globe has grandfathered accusations of fabrication: anything made up before 1996 doesn’t count. Proving a racial double standard often depends on the beholder, and yes, times and mores have changed. But there’s little question that in dumping Smith and grandfathering Barnicle, the Globe is using two different standards.
The Times‘s Dos and Don’ts
It’s official: The New York Times does not approve of “reckless opinion-mongering.” Earlier this month, the Times updated its conflict-of-interest policy governing outside book contracts, speeches, and media appearances. The newly issued document has it all: the tortured prose and reasoning expected from a Times proclamation, paranoia about what might happen if the rules aren’t obeyed, and loopholes through which Times managers and other exalted figures get to do pretty much what they like.
Part of the document lays out a sensible approach to the high speaking fees criticized by James Warren of the Chicago Tribune and James Fallows before he went to US News&World Report. The Times now sets a $2500-per-event cap on speaking fees, above which a Times employee is required to consult in advance with a boss. The paper also seeks to avoid the most blatant conflicts by asking employees to “limit their outside speaking appearances to events or forums sponsored by educational or not-for-profit groups whose main focus does not include lobbying or political activity.” And it requires any staffer who earns money for speaking fees to submit an annual report to management.
Other areas are less reasonable. “Under no circumstance should staff members appear on programs or panel shows in which a premium is placed on speculation, punditry and reckless opinion-mongering,” the memo lectures (noting that this restriction does not apply to op-ed columnists, “as their business is the promulgation of opinion”).
“It is our conviction that the strident and theatrical tone of such programs clashes with the kind of journalism we practice,” the document continues. What kind of TV passes the Times‘s smell test? Staffers “may participate in traditional news shows. . . or engage in thoughtful and retrospective analysis of events.” Curiously, the Times policy never says whether these elaborate standards apply to new media.
Not too long ago, a blanket restriction prohibited Times employees from appearing frequently enough to be considered a regular contributor. Now, however, the Times hosts its own nightly program on New York 1, on which virtually everyone works for the Times. Thus, the memo makes an exception for “specific broadcast arrangements made with the consent of senior editors at The Times.” In other words: it’s arbitrary, and if you suck up to the right people you might get to host a show on the tube.
Meanwhile, a Times writer is required to notify management in advance of all book publicity appearances–even if the book has nothing to do with the person’s work for the paper. If any item provokes grumbling from the Newspaper Guild, it’ll probably be this one.
The researchers at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) have produced a study that might help crumble one of the most lasting media myths of this generation: namely, that the press is consumed by a liberal-left bias. Studies that have reached this conclusion have focused on hot-button conservative topics (finding, for example, that a huge proportion of political reporters supports some form of abortion rights and opposes prayer in school). So FAIR decided to explore economic affairs.
Their survey on nine key issues–including Medicare and Social Security, taxation, the impact of NAFTA, concentration of economic power, etc.–found that members of the media almost always express opinions to the right of the public’s. (The sole exception concerned the need for environmental regulation.)
There are myriad methodological pitfalls in a study like this (notably, journalists’ views gathered this year are contrasted with public opinion polls taken as far back as five years ago). And FAIR continues to argue that the media’s political tilt is best gauged by looking at public performance, rather than reporters’ private views. Still, the numbers are in many cases striking, such as the finding that almost three times as many journalists describe themselves as “left” socially (30 per cent) as describe themselves “left” economically (11 per cent). A complete copy of the study can be read at www.fair.org.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 30, 1998
Research: Leila Abboud