This article originally appeared in the August 20, 1998 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle's carefully choreographed resurrection has been rationalized by a fragile fiction: that, despite a career filled with what editor Matt Storin has euphemistically described as "controversy," it's never actually been proven that Barnicle has engaged in professional misconduct. Thus, Storin argues, Barnicle deserves the same second chance Patricia Smith received in 1995, when she was first suspected of making up characters and quotes. "I've never lied. I've never plagiarized," Barnicle asserted at last week's news conference at the Globe. Never mind that Mike Royko accused Barnicle of stealing his ideas on at least three occasions. Never mind that the Phoenix once caught Barnicle loosely rewriting a classic Jimmy Cannon column.
Now comes what is perhaps the most damning evidence of all that Barnicle has, indeed, plagiarized. Twelve and a half years ago, Barnicle wrote a column in which he clearly borrowed heavily -- lifting exact quotes, complete with idiosyncratic spelling -- from A.J. Liebling's 1961 biography of Louisiana political legend Earl Long, The Earl of Louisiana. Northeastern University journalism professor Bill Kirtz says he wrote a letter at the time to Robert Kierstead, who was then the Globe's ombudsman, suggesting that Kierstead look into it. Kierstead says he doesn't recall receiving such a letter, adding: "In the nine years that I did it [worked as ombudsman], I received calls complaining about Barnicle, but I never once received a call complaining that Mike Barnicle had plagiarized."
Kirtz has never gone public with his brief against Barnicle, although he says he's discussed it with students in his journalism-ethics classes for years. Kirtz also alludes to it briefly in the current issue of Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists. In a piece on the fabrications of Smith and the New Republic's Stephen Glass, published before Barnicle's most recent troubles, Kirtz writes that "Barnicle lifted without credit scores of details from A.J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana." But the particulars of that incident have never been reported -- until now.
Barnicle could not be reached for comment. Storin was unavailable. Vice president and assistant to the publisher Al Larkin said, "You've presented us with a 12-year-old column and given us an hour to respond. I can't say anything about these comparisons without more time to look into them, and we will."
The column in question was published just a month before Michael Janeway's year-long tenure as the Globe's editor came to an abrupt end. Storin, who had been the paper's managing editor, had departed the previous year after a falling-out with Janeway, and did not return to the Globe until 1992. Veteran executive editor Jack Driscoll, who served in the top slot between the Janeway and Storin regimes, is now retired. Three different ombudsmen have served since Kierstead retired. The two remaining constants: Mike Barnicle and his slipshod standards.