Barnicle and Dershowitz: When Worlds Collide
by Ken Sanes
In 1990, Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle wrote a column in which he accused
Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz of having made a racially-biased statement. In the
column, Barnicle claimed that on a chance meeting with Dershowitz in Harvard Square eight
years before, Dershowitz said to him: "I love Asian women, don't you? They're ...
they're so submissive."
An outraged Dershowitz denied having made the statement, while Barnicle stood by his
claim. Dershowitz responded by engaging in a counter-attack. In a 1990 Boston Herald
column, Dershowitz said he had discovered a second incident in which Barnicle was alleged
to have falsely attributed a racist remark to someone. In that incident, in the early
1980s, Barnicle was found by the courts to have falsely characterized a Jewish merchant as
engaging in a racial slur, according to Dershowitz.
"The courts found that 'the things attributed' to the merchant by Barnicle 'were
not said by him.' The record of the case also showed that Barnicle had 'interlineated' his
notes in an effort to lend credibility to his made-up story, but that the courts did not
fall for it. Barnicle was found to have libeled the merchant and had to pay approximately
$40,000," wrote Dershowitz.
The fact that, in both of these instances, Barnicle was alleged to have falsely
attributed racist remarks to Jews, suggested a pattern. It also made this a potentially
volatile issue for the Globe.
Dershowitz continued his counter-attack in a 1992 Herald column, reporting that
Barnicle had apologized on the David Brudnoy radio show for what he said in the 1990
column. According to Dershowitz, Barnicle said in response to a caller:
"I gotta tell you about Alan Dershowitz. Y'know, he's got a legitimate beef with
me....I apologize to Alan Dershowitz..."
The caller is then said to have responded to Barnicle: "I see. You haven't written
this in your column, have you not?"
Barnicle is said to have replied: "I have not written it in a column that has
appeared in the paper. I wrote it in a column that has not run in the paper, yuh...You
just have to accept my word for it."
In addition to the Dershowitz columns, the Globe's ombudsman at the time also expressed
doubts about Barnicle's ability to remember the quote so many years later. And Boston
Magazine ran a story and a short-lived featured titled "Barnicle Watch" that
raised questions about whether readers could count on what they read in Barnicle's
This June, when the Globe revealed that another columnist, Patricia Smith, had been
fired for fabricating characters, to no one's surprise, there was Dershowitz ready to use
this as an opportunity to resume his counter-attack on Barnicle. As Media Critic Dan
Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix put it in an article about the controversy, Dershowitz took
the opportunity to renew "his longstanding war with Barnicle, recycling
eight-year-old charges that Barnicle had viciously misquoted him."
In at least one television appearance and a letter submitted to the Globe and other
media, Dershowitz accused the Globe of a double standard because it fired Smith, who is
black, but not Barnicle, who is white, although Barnicle was accused of fabricating
information as well.
Dershowitz, of course, was going for one of the Globe's weak spots, despite the fact
that there was no reason to believe race was a factor since the real issue was that Smith
was accused of inventing characters in recent columns, whereas the Barnicle allegations
were years old. It is hard not to conclude that Dershowitz, who worked on the O.J. Simpson
defense with its allegations of racism, was trying to arouse public sentiments against the
Globe on the volatile issue of race for his own purposes.
It is clear from the Globe's stories about the firing that, in fact, the newspaper
anticipated just such an attack. In fact, its fear of being accused by Dershowitz or
others of showing racial preference to a white columnist was part of what motivated its
misguided decision to cover-up Smith's fabrications in 1996. Look again at the Editor
Storin's explanation for why he didn't fire Smith in 1996:
"I knew going way back that people said Barnicle made things up...To the best of
my knowledge, the paper had not addressed the Barnicle questions head on. I had this
very talented black woman.... How then can I take action against this woman under this
In other words, having failed to deal adequately with the alleged misdeeds of a
prominent white columnist, the Globe now felt obligated to extend this same protection to
a black columnist. It was going down a very odd road of equal opportunity cover-ups.
Ironically, Dershowitz, by creating the Barnicle issue, may have helped save Smith's job
The Globe's description of its reasoning in recent stories was obviously also intended
to forestall accusations of racial preference from Dershowitz, by showing that Smith, in
fact, received preference because she was black. The Globe's effort to forestall
an attack by Dershowitz failed, of course. "Dershowitz hits Barnicle columns -- Sees
a 'double standard.' " the Globe's June 20, 1998 headline said, the day after it
announced Smith had resigned.
The story under this headline is a painfully-worded defense of the Globe and Barnicle
against Dershowitz's claims, one that is always careful to leave doors of deniability open
in case Barnicle was proved to have fabricated information. According to the story, as a
result of the Patricia Smith incident, the Globe had now begun a review of Barnicle's
columns from January 1996 to the present, to see if anyone he referred to was invented,
and it had done so before Dershowitz made his allegation. In other words, the Globe was
telling readers that it wasn't dancing to Dershowitz's tune and it was already aware of
the danger of a double standard. Having originally protected Smith because it had
protected Barnicle, it now found itself in the equally odd position of investigating
Barnicle because it was investigating Smith.
The defense of Barnicle in the story is, as noted, painful in its caution. The story
informs readers that: "In a statement, Globe spokesman Richard P. Gulla stressed that
Barnicle had never admitted to or been found to have fabricated quotes." It quotes
Storin as saying "During the time I have been editor of the paper, I have had no
reason to doubt the authenticity of Mike Barnicle's columns." The article then notes
that Storin had been editor since 1993 which is, of course, after the disputed Barnicle
column was written.
But the Globe article also contains a good deal of damaging information about Barnicle,
including a reference to doubts by the ombudsman at the time, and a reference to the
Boston Magazine article. It also describes the lawsuit Barnicle lost but there are odd
things about the Globe's description. For example, the paragraph starts off: "There
have been other allegations about Barnicle fabrications over the years, none
substantiated." But if Barnicle lost a lawsuit over allegations he fabricated a
quote, that is a substantiation. The Globe's description of the lawsuit also
mentions nothing about the finding that Barnicle had "interlineated" his notes,
as Dershowitz claims. And its wording seems designed to minimize any negative impression
over what Barnicle did.
On June 21, the day after this article appeared, Matthew Storin gave Barnicle an
all-clear: "Globe completes review; backs columnist Barnicle," the headline over
Storin's statement says.
The statement informs readers that 364 columns, dating to January 1996, were reviewed.
"Where warranted, we have verified identities of all people named as significant
sources or subjects," Storin says in the statement. "Mike Barnicle has written
more than 3,500 columns for The Boston Globe since 1973. His style has sometimes been
controversial and he has collected a good number of critics and enemies over the years.
But that does not justify linking him with the misdeeds of Patricia Smith. For those who
would attempt to do so, I would urge great caution."
But in his own syndicated column, Dershowitz once again hit back, implying that this
was another Globe effort to manipulate information. In the column, Dershowitz says,
"the Globe has refused to conduct a full search, limiting itself to a cursory review
of the last two years of Barnicle columns in an effort to determine whether he made up
rather than whether he put false quotes in the mouths of real people. There are important
differences between the Smith and Barnicle cases. The quotes made up by Barnicle were far
more racially divisive and explosive than those made up by Smith. Smith made up
while Barnicle made up quotes and put them in the mouths of real people thus
causing much more harm."
In other words, the Globe was investigating Barnicle for something he wasn't being
accused of doing, and failing to investigate him for something he had once been accused of
Meanwhile, Dershowitz's column also carried forward his basic line of attack, alleging
possible racial preference and repeating the claim that Barnicle apologized on a radio
program and revealed the existence of an apology-column that never ran. (Barnicle says he
only said he was sorry he couldn't reach Dershowitz, and no tape recording has so far
"The alleged (Barnicle) column never ran," wrote Dershowitz. "Moreover
the Globe has further information in its files proving that the Globe concluded after its
own investigation that he had fabricated the quote. I have challenged the Globe to open up
its files so that the public can judge for itself. But the Globe insists on suppressing
While the Globe was being attacked for protecting Barnicle by Dershowitz, Barnicle
launched his own counter-attack with a column from Dublin criticizing the Globe for
feeling obligated to investigate him to be fair to Smith.
"In order to balance its uncomfortable decision, the Globe chose to
put me on the rack to appear even-handed within the politically correct, agenda-driven
journalism of the age." wrote Barnicle.
Then, on Sunday, June 28, there was a bizarre new addition to the Globe's increasingly
messy efforts to deal with this situation. On the front of the business section, columnist
David Warsh heaped large quantities of praise on his colleague Barnicle and attacked
Dershowitz for dragging Barnicle's name through the mud. Another of the degrading
references that appear too often in the Globe appears in the Warsh column, with an
innuendo about the young Dershowitz.
Referring to the allegations of the made-up quote, Warsh says that Dershowitz reached
"a resolution of the matter with the newspaper -- thereby avoiding the process of
mutual discovery that would have shed light on the question of whether the youthful Dersh
had been racist, sexist, or, in his own words, a potential adulterer, or Barnicle a
What this "resolution" was isn't revealed in the column. But the column is
most noteworthy for introducing a new and unexpected theme into the debate -- murder. The
column noted that Barnicle "has a brother who is an influential Boston homicide
detective," and that "he hangs out with cops," At the end, it launches into
an attack on the Harvard Law School, where Dershowitz is a professor, dredging up a number
of controversies at the school: "And of course there is the unsolved murder of Mary
Jo Frug, whose husband, Gerald, is a law school professor," Warsh wrote. "The
police investigation of her death was hindered and hushed through a combination of legal
bluster and arrogance from a circle of friends from the law school."
Warsh says the lesson of all this is that "We do a better job maintaining our
standards and ventilating our problems here at the newspaper than they do over
there." But the real lesson seems to be if you attack the Globe, you will be
attacked, and so will those connected to you. First, Barnicle attacks Dershowitz; then
Dershowitz counter-attacks Barnicle, over and over; then Barnicle-ally-Warsh
counter-counter-attacks Dershowitz and the law school where Dershowitz works. The volatile
issue of race and a tragic murder take their place as points of vulnerability that can be
used in a game of symbolic war.
What is lost in all this is any sense that the Boston Globe knows how to correctly
apply professional and ethical standards or that it knows how to rise above the inevitable
challenges and criticism that come with being the most powerful institution in New
England. The Globe's decision-making process has made little sense and its coverage of the
controversy has been driven by the desire to defend the management of the newspaper from
Dershowitz and others.
As a result of all this, the Globe now finds itself enmeshed in the world of attack,
cover-up, and defense that it is supposed to be writing about. As in so many instances,
the Globe can't cover the story because it is the story.
Go to the next article:
of a Cover-Up or to the main page:
Cover-Up at the Boston Globe or to the
Homepage for the Transparency website
* Footnote: Phoenix Media Critic Dan Kennedy says that Barnicle
been accused of making up characters in the past. If specifics on that are forthcoming,
that will be taken into account. (See correction on this
Note 1: The Globe's efforts to conceal the
fabrications of Patricia Smith will inevitably entangle the Globe in a basic question: how
can it justify exposing the misdeeds of others, when it conceals its own. How, for
example, can the Globe explain why Assistant Managing Editor Walter Robinson helped
conceal the existence of fabrications in the newspaper but went public with an intrusive
claim that former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn had been intoxicated in public? There seems to be
another double standard there in which information about the misdeeds of the Globe is
concealed while information about the private lives of those not in the newspaper's favor
are treated as important news.
Note 2: Just as the top editors at the Globe aren't being held
accountable, while the columnist is held responsible, so there are similar complaints that
CNN's top staff have been given special treatment in the wake of a misleading nerve
gas story at that news organization.