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The Barnicle interview that wasn't

If you haven't already, take a look at Boston magazine editor James Burnett's Q-and-A with Mike Barnicle. Because of the insight it offers into the former Globe columnist's self-conception, it's a fascinating read. But it's also deeply frustrating, because Burnett isn't nearly as tough on his subject as he should have been.

I know firsthand that it's hard to challenge an interviewee when they're charming or bombastic--or both. We can't all be Oriana Fallaci. Still, there were a few points where I really wish Burnett had given it a shot. Here they are:

1. On Barnicle's dalliance with WBUR

What Barnicle said: Apparently, apparently, there are huge numbers of people in the Boston media establishment who are so insecure in their own positions that they fear me coming in to see Paul La Camera for lunch, which I guess is sort of flattering, in a sense. But other than that…It is what it is.

What Burnett should have said: Wait a second. You say people who didn't want you at WBUR are insecure in their own positions. But isn't it actually that they see your journalistic credibility as fatally compromised, and worried that you'd be a liability to the station?

What Burnett actually said: And it is a curious thing. None of the issues you get locally translates with these folks that you know on the national level or in New York or outside of 128. There's a gulf there, or a disparity.

2. On the state of the Globe

What Barnicle said: I don't know if I would be doing a whole lot of things differently than what [Globe management] is doing right now. I think Marty Baron is a terrific newspaper editor. It's a struggle each and every day to put that product out, given the diminishing resources, given the lack of energy that exists around the entire industry, given the cutbacks. I don't know that I would be doing anything a whole lot differently. It's still a pretty good looking paper....

What Burnett should have said: Last year, though, you called the NY Times Co. "journalistic car strippers," and said they were turning the Globe into the "Herald with more people." Those two descriptions don't jibe.

What Burnett actually said: I guess I’ll be honest and say I'm surprised that you went as easy as you did on the paper. Given, only a year or two ago, some serious talks about you, Jack Welch, Jack Connors [making an offer to buy the Globe]…

3. On the alleged advantages of local newspaper ownership

What Barnicle said: Jack Connors wanted to buy [the Globe]. He wanted to have a locally owned newspaper. He wanted to try to restore the impact and influence that a locally owned newspaper once had in this market. I got him together with Jack Welch, and the two of them had a pretty good financial plan put together. And after a few months, the Times Company decided to turn them down. You can't tell me they wouldn't love to have the offer on the table today. Think of it this way: In 1993, the New York Times Company purchased the Globe for $1.1 billion. Today the market cap of the New York Times Company is just about a billion. So the market cap, the value of their company, is less than what they paid for the Globe

What Burnett should have said: You talk about restoring the "impact and influence"of a locally owned paper. But there are certain stories the Globe simply wouldn't have done if the Connors/Welch bid had succeeded, like the recent Spotlight series on the market practices of Partners Healthcare, whose board of trustees Jack Connors happens to chair. Isn't that a problem?

What Burnett actually said: I knew those numbers, but hadn't thought of it that way.

4. On the insignificance of media criticism

What Barnicle said: The thing with media criticism is that if someone is criticizing you, who has never met you, has never shaken your hand, never looked you in the eye, never looked you in the eye, never introduced themselves in person, and they are going to spend a good portion of their life critiquing what your write, or what you do, in the larger sense of the meaning "do," you should pay no attention to them. What would they ever be able to tell you about yourself and your work if they don't know you, if they've never met you? There's criticism, there's book reviews, and there's movie reviews. But the intensely personal outlook that a lot of these critics bring to the day, whether it's Kevin Cullen, or whether me, or whether it’s anyone…

What Burnett should have said: But if their criticisms are legitimate, why does it matter if you've met them or shaken their hand? Also, between what you said about WBUR and what you're saying now, I wonder: do you think the criticism that led to your departure from the Globe was worthless?

What Burnett actually said:  And you've been on the other end of that.

5. On news nativism

What Barnicle said: When I first worked at the Boston Globe, everyone in the newsroom went to places like Boston University, where I went, or Boston College. There were several people from Harvard there. They could tell you all the stops on the Red Line. They grew up here. They lived here for long periods of time. Their family was from here. They would actually know people who were firefighters, or cops, of school teachers. It's nobody's fault, and that's happened less and less. It's happened all over. It's become like a prized profession. You went to Duke University. You’re from Pennsylvania. What are you doing here for Boston magazine? It's a bonus of a job.

What Burnett should have said: But isn't it good to get some fresh perspectives on the city? To have the news reported and analyzed, at least in part, by people who don't take Boston's various tics for granted?

What Burnett actually said: When you were doing the column, you certainly wrote a lot about the people who were the readers, the customers… Does this represent an evolution in your own thinking about the role, and the effect of that kind of coverage?

To be fair, Burnett does press Barnicle indirectly on the fourth point a bit later ("Did you hold yourself to the same standards when you were critiquing the work of a public figure?). And who knows: maybe I would have backed off Barnicle in Burnett's place, too. Still, someone--sometime--really ought to make Barnicle answer the aforementioned questions.

  • O-FISH-L said:

    Adam, good stuff.  I have to wonder given Barnicle's mega-ego, do you think the questions posed by Burnett were submitted/screened in advance?

    December 31, 2008 11:36 AM
  • Lissa Harris said:

    Awesome. This should be a regular feature. Every reporter in Boston would live in terror of it.

    December 31, 2008 11:42 AM
  • don warner saklad said:

    WBUR needs someone to head up 90.9 not directly from the commercial sector of the media. The current head of WBUR has dumbed down its broadcasts to be more like commercial broadcasting. The higher level of public radio has been lower under him. And there's that WBUR guy broadcasting regurgitated press packets for the guests rather than more of his own original thinking when doing the call in shows.

    January 1, 2009 5:10 AM
  • aging cynic said:

    Adam, I echo what Lissa and Fish said. Great job. Guys like Barnicle do what they do because they CAN...

    January 1, 2009 3:58 PM
  • The ghost of J Anthony Lukas said:

    I was most interested in the fifth point. The incestuousness of Boston life in general, and the media in particular, is irritating. Jack Connors? Seriously? Hasn't Boston produced a new "Madman" in the last 30 years?

    January 1, 2009 7:35 PM
  • Admirer said:

    It says all you need to know about Burnett. Well done, Adam

    January 6, 2009 4:37 PM
  • Dont Quote Me said:

    I've never bought the notion that only Boston natives should cover Boston--which you'd expect

    August 17, 2009 12:29 AM

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