Boston columnist quits amid new allegations Barnicle had beaten earlier call to resign

August 20, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON — Eight days after salvaging his career at the Boston Globe, columnist Mike Barnicle resigned yesterday, at the newspaper's request, after editors could find no evidence that two young cancer victims described in a 1995 column ever existed.

Barnicle told his editors Tuesday that he had been given the story by a nurse whose name he could not recall. He also said he had never tried to contact the boys' families.

Globe Editor Matthew Storin said in a statement yesterday: "In light of his failure to follow the most basic reporting requirements as well as the duplicitous way in which the story was written, it is clear that Mike Barnicle can no longer write for the Boston Globe."

The abrupt end of Barnicle's Globe career was perhaps the final act in a wrenching summer at the newspaper, which has now lost two of its most popular metropolitan columnists, a lyrical black woman, Patricia Smith, and a rough-edged white man, Barnicle, to charges of journalistic malfeasance.

Storin had been alerted to the 1995 column Monday by Kenneth Tomlinson, a retired editor of Reader's Digest. Tomlinson, whose own son had survived a spinal tumor, was moved when he read the Oct. 8, 1995, column and sought to reprint it.

But fact-checkers from Reader's Digest, who contacted Children's Hospital and checked various cancer societies, could find no evidence of the boys' existence. Eventually, Tomlinson said yesterday, he decided the column was fabricated.

Barnicle, in a statement that was by turns gracious and resentful, said yesterday that he felt consumed by a "media feeding frenzy," with his work of 25 years -- about 4,000 columns -- under scrutiny.

"Just in the last 24 hours, I was asked to explain circumstances and columns written in 1973, 1981, 1986 and 1995 and was given 24 hours -- a single day's news cycle -- to rebut all the allegations at once," Barnicle said.

"Frankly, this is not what I want to do with my life. And it is hurting the paper I love. This burden has made it impossible for Matt Storin and the editors of the Globe to publish the terrific product they put on the street each day."

Asked how he had come to write the column on the young cancer victims, Barnicle said a nurse had told the story to a telephone operator at the Globe who then told it to Barnicle.

"I believed the story to be true and I wrote it after talking to the nurse," he said.

The telephone operator, Rose Berry Devine, an old friend of the columnist's, agreed yesterday with Barnicle's account, saying that she remembered that the call came in from a nurse's aide who was suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome and has since died.

Aside from the questions raised by Tomlinson, who was drafting an article about the cancer-victim column for the Weekly Standard, a Washington-based magazine, the Boston Phoenix, the city's alternative weekly, had prepared a piece showing strong similarities between the writer A. J. Liebling's biography of Louisiana's Earl Long and a 1986 column by Barnicle.

Asked yesterday why he had not alerted the Globe to his suspicions back in 1995, Tomlinson said it was because, in part, he had assigned one of his own reporters to do a piece on how a column can be fabricated.

"I couldn't get a lot of interest going," he said. "It was one of those good ideas that fell by the wayside."

When he read about Smith's forced resignation, and the Globe's decision to vet some of Barnicle's past work, he said, "I thought, 'Any examination by the Globe will turn this up.' " But that examination of Barnicle's work since January 1996 turned up no problematic columns, according to Globe editors.

Then two weeks ago, when the Boston Herald disclosed the similarities between Barnicle's Aug. 2 column of jokes and musings, and jokes in a 1997 book by comedian George Carlin, Tomlinson said he thought that Barnicle's career would be over. "I thought it was a foregone conclusion he was going down and his sins had caught up to him," he said.

"I couldn't believe the massive pressure brought to bear on the Globe to keep him," Tomlinson added, referring to the support of popular radio talk-show host Don Imus and other prominent journalists, as well as a major Globe advertiser and hundreds of Globe readers who deluged the newspaper switchboard with protest calls.

Only after Storin reversed his initial decision to ask for Barnicle's resignation for misleading the Globe about the Carlin situation did Tomlinson send a fax to Storin questioning the cancer-victim column.

Pub Date: 8/20/98

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