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If you’re thinking that Don Imus will never resurrect his tattered career (assuming that the turkey-necked talker doesn’t think he’s too old to do so), don’t bet against him. Look at the curious case of Mike Barnicle during last week’s Imus saga.
When Imus was merely suspended (before his firing last Thursday), CBS’s boneheaded first move was to tap Barnicle to fill in. A longtime Imus guest, friend, and joke-lifter, Barnicle made headlines as recently as 2004 for mocking a black woman on the air.
Talking about the marriage of former secretary of defense William Cohen (who is white) and his wife, Janet Langhart (who is black), Barnicle remarked, “Yeah. I know them both. Bill Cohen. Janet Langhart. Kind of like Mandingo.”
Protests from the NAACP and others resulted in a 17-minute on-air self-flagellation by Barnicle. But he wasn’t the first to liken Cohen-Langhart to master-slave. Imus (naturally) did it in 2000. But no one expected originality from Barnicle, who was run out of the Boston Globe newsroom in 1998, after a 25-year career as a columnist, for lifting jokes from George Carlin.
Even that plagiarism episode had a racial tint. Only months before, the Globe had fired a black columnist for making things up, and Barnicle’s initial punishment was just a slap on the wrist. His critics included Howell Raines, then editorial page editor of the Times (the flagship of the chain that owns the Globe). Raines charged that Barnicle’s light sentence had everything to do with his place at the old boys’ poker table alongside defenders like Imus, Tim Russert, and Larry King.
Raines’s words in the Times still hover over the Barnicle incident: “Long after Mr. Barnicle settles back into his column, the historical bottom line of this event will be that a white guy with the right connections got pardoned for offenses that would have taken down a minority or female journalist.”
But after getting caught making things up himself shortly thereafter, Barnicle wound up walking the plank at the Globe. And later, of course, in yet another twist, Raines was driven from the Times for overly protecting young black plagiarist Jayson Blair.
All that furor over Barnicle is widely known, especially in press circles, which is why it was such a head-scratcher that CBS considered—even for a second—trying to attach a Barnicle to its sinking ship.
The idea apparently came from Boston CBS station WTKK. Station management won’t talk about it, but Leonard Atkins, the Boston NAACP president who took Barnicle to task in 2004, gives WTKK’s relatively new management the benefit of the doubt. “Unless you are familiar with the history around the personnel,” says Atkins, “you are bound to fall into these kinds of situations.”
The people at CBS syndicator Westwood One were certainly familiar with it, however, and staffers there say they were stunned when CBS told them last Wednesday night that Barnicle would be sitting in Imus’s chair during his suspension.
Once word of it hit the newswires, however, Barnicle could forget about it. By Thursday afternoon, CBS had sent its ship in another, smoother direction, firing Imus and putting WFAN sports guys Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo in the slot instead.
But the episode shows that Barnicle has resurrected his rep in just a few short years. Of course, Imus was one of the main resurrectionists. Maybe Barnicle, who after all still has a radio show in Boston, will return the favor.