Newspapers Hold Columnists To Rising Standard for Truth

Resignation of Boston writer raises debate over storytelling vs. accuracy and authenticity.

Cranky columnists who use eloquence to champion the inelegant common man have long been a staple of big-city newspapers.

Traditionally - and ink journalists can be as tradition-bound as the Amish - these star writers have been accorded much freedom in their work.

That may now be changing. The ouster of Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle over charges of fabricated stories could mean that columnists everywhere now face tighter scrutiny.

"Columnists have historically been given great literary license. Now a new, more literal news standard is being applied to writers like Mike Barnicle," says Everette Dennis, professor of communication and media management at New York's Fordham University.

Behind this shift may be an American culture that is rapidly losing patience with those who shade the truth.

"Maybe the public is moving toward a greater commitment to the fidelity of information," says Mr. Dennis.

Chicago Tribune opinion-page columnist Clarence Page agrees that columnists are being held to a higher standard.

Before television, he says, newspaper standards and ethics were looser and competition was less intense. People turned to newspapers and columnists more for entertainment. Not only columnists, but reporters and rewrite people would embellish the facts to stretch out a story.

Fictional characters

Jimmy Breslin had a recurring character in his columns, "Marvin the Torch," a professional arsonist. Did he really exist? "Maybe, maybe not," says Mr. Page. "But nobody made a big deal about it because it was such a good read."

In Mr. Barnicle's case, "I can only speculate that he had a little of the old attitude, 'Don't let truth get in the way of a good story,' " says Page. "But that's a temptation that has to be resisted at all costs."

Barnicle's Wednesday resignation from The Boston Globe followed a similar departure in June by columnist Patricia Smith, who left the newspaper after an internal review turned up fabricated people and quotes in four of her columns.

Many columnists and media critics express sadness over Barnicle's fall from grace - but offer little sympathy. "All of us feel the pressure to produce columns that beat the competition," says E.J. Montini, columnist at the Arizona Republic. "But what value is there to your work when you perform it dishonorably?"

Likening Barnicle's alleged fabrications to an athlete taking steroids, Mr. Montini adds: "You might win the 100-yard-dash, but is it fun to win a sporting event by cheating?"

Fictional characters based on common folks and colorful neighbors have long been the staple of newspaper columnists like Mr. Breslin and Mike Royko. Breslin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for columns that "consistently champion the ordinary citizen." The difference, says Montini, is that "readers knew they were fictional."

Earlier this month, after refusing a request to resign from the newspaper, Barnicle was suspended without pay for using jokes from a book by comedian George Carlin without attribution.

The 1995 column that led to Barnicle's resignation focused on a friendship between two children, one white and one black, who met in a hospital. Barnicle wrote that after the black child died, the white child's parents donated $10,000 to the black child's parents.

A fact-checker at Reader's Digest, which had planned to reprint the account, tried to verify the story, but couldn't. Kenneth Tomlinson, a retired editor of the magazine, alerted the Globe to the discrepancy on Monday. In a television interview Wednesday, Barnicle, admired by many Bostonians for his working-class sensibilities, said, "I still believe that story to be true. It was not fabricated."

But that doesn't satisfy David Shaw, Pulitzer Prize-winning media columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "The fact that he resigned so quickly over these accusations, but didn't over earlier ones, suggests that there may be more to these more recent charges," he says.

Era of scrutiny

Indeed, he wonders "how Barnicle could have fought for his reinstatement if, in fact, he knew this kind of a story was lurking in the background is also hard to understand." Yet Shaw adds that "I'm not sure how many journalists could stand up to the intense scrutiny" Barnicle got.

Some newsrooms already have a tight standard for columns. When Montini finishes a piece, for example, he delivers it to the paper's city editor, who reviews it and in turn sends it to the copy desk, where it is further vetted before the presses roll.

Montini says he can't fathom why Barnicle might have made up material for his column. "Part of the reason we're in this business is that reality is so much more fantastic than fiction," he says.

Syndicated columnist Richard Reeves says changes in what newspapers deliver to readers have affected the way columnists do their job. "Newspaper columnists used to have a clearer identity," he says. "They used to simply play off the news. Now columnists are expected to offer what journalism itself increasingly sells, which is personalities, celebrities, and niche subjects from gardening to the Internet."

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