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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 columns.

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 circumstance?' "

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 in 1996.

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 people 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 people, 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 doing.*

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 turned up.)

"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 the truth."

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 liar."

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: Chronology 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 had 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 footnote.)

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.