Copyrighted material

Firing Shows Integrity of Journalism

by Allan R. Andrews

"She manipulated readers, betrayed colleagues and made a burlesque of what is the soul of journalism: to write the truth"
The Boston Globe has a reputation inside and outside journalism as being a writer's newspaper, allowing its columnists space and freedom to roam and think and write as pundits, philosophers and poets. All the Globe asks in return is honesty, and it initiated a columnists' checking system to assure the integrity of their work.

Last month, the Globe got burned, but even in the ashes of a good writer's betrayal, the eloquence that the newspaper encourages shone through. Its published self-analysis of the five days in June should be required reading for all journalists.

The newspaper on June 23 published an unusual editorial apology. "A newspaper's worth and its place in society are based on only one thing -- its integrity," a brief editorial said.

The newspaper's voice spoke of the "failure of one of its own to live up to standards," and concluded, "this editorial is to express our apology to our readers and to renew our commitment to the truth."

Prompting this unusual expression was the story that one of its Metropolitan columnists, Patricia Smith, confronted by her supervising editor after an internal review of her writing, admitted she fabricated persons and quotations in several of her columns during the year. At one point, the Globe disclosed, Smith fictionalized an entire account of a woman dying of cancer.

Globe Editor Matt Storin asked for and got Smith's resignation, saying, "There is no middle ground on something like this."

Storin said the newspaper several years ago began monitoring its Metro columnists -- with the writers' knowledge -- after it received complaints about the truth of some of the writings. Supervising editors demanded that columnists provide identifiable information for every person they wrote of or mentioned in their columns.

The system went through periods of enforcement and laxity, but it was this kind of cross-checking that eventually turned up suspicions about Smith.

The 42-year-old Smith, an accomplished and known African-American poet as well as a columnist, was awarded a prestigious prize this year by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for her commentary. She also made the list of finalists in the competition for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Ironically, her Metropolitan colleague who won the Pulitzer, Eileen McNamara, was in San Diego being honored as "Columnist of the Year" by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists when the news of Smith's resignation broke.

According to an Associated Press story, McNamara told the gathered columnists when asked of the Globe's scrutiny, "There is nothing insulting about being asked to stand up for the integrity of your work."

Indeed, in a gracious overture, the Globe published a final column from Smith the same day it published the story of her fabrication and her resignation.

"There are always excuses," Smith wrote in her apologetic last column. "Usually they point to the cursed fallibility of human beings, our tendency to spit in the face of common sense, zigging when the world says zag."

Pointing to what she said was her "heady mixture of naivete, ambition, and an almost insane love for the powers of language," Smith said she pushed herself and lost sight of her priorities. She wanted her pieces to "jolt," she said, and so she "tweaked them to make sure they did."

The Globe's ombudsman, Jack Thomas, writing two days later, said response to the situation was running 3 to 1 in sympathy with Smith and that one caller said Smith's apology "was so well-written and so poignant that it ought to be nominated for a Pulitzer."

Thomas cut through the sympathy, however, by recording the betrayal that Smith's colleagues felt, especially the African-American women of the Globe's staff.

"For all her skill at writing," Thomas noted, "what Smith had done was to take the language she says she loves and twist it into something grotesque. She had manipulated readers, betrayed colleagues and made a burlesque of what is the soul of not only journalism, but all writing, and that is to write the truth."

The Globe's decision to scrutinize its columnists' offerings was stimulated in large measure by rumors concerning another Metro columnist, Mike Barnicle. For 25 years Barnicle has been chronicling life around the neighborhoods of Boston, drawing much of his material from local establishments populated with characters that some suspected were figments of Barnicle's imagination.

With Smith's forced resignation as fodder, flamboyant Harvard professor and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz charged the Globe with racial, gender and ethnic duplicity in getting rid of Smith and retaining Barnicle. Dershowitz and Barnicle clashed almost a decade ago over a racial slur attributed to Dershowitz that he claims the columnist fabricated.

While Barnicle, vacationing in Ireland, again denied Dershowitz' claim, The Globe, in the wake of the Smith incident, initiated a new investigative review of Barnicle's last three years of columns and published its support of the writer. Storin wrote, "He has collected a good number of critics and enemies over the years. But that does not justify linking him to the misdeeds of Patricia Smith."

Two days later, writing from Dublin, Barnicle, demonstrating that his smart-alecky, street-savvy style has a mellow and serious side, responded to what he labeled as Dershowitz' "contempt."

"Few have been allowed my privilege," Barnicle wrote, "to record stories of our time.

"To have people share their grief or their delight with you is a humbling thing," he wrote. Paying tribute to his mentors at the newspaper, Barnicle said they "taught me to report the truth, to be unafraid of controversy, and to avoid writing for the approval of colleagues or to satisfy 'uptown' encampments."

Using an anecdote from the streets that police told him readers would think he made up, Barnicle concluded, "It is still astounding to me how much daily drama happens out of the headlines." When the lives of those considered "consistently normal" are chronicled, Barnicle said, their tales are "thought to be fiction by the isolated or the affluent."

Expressing pride in his work and casting a sideward literary glance at his former colleague, Barnicle wrote, "I am proud of what I do, yet, believe me, no paycheck is worth a reputation."

Allan R. Andrews is an executive news editor with The Stars & Stripes in Washington, D.C. and a prize-winning columnist. He is a former copy editor and reporter for The Boston Globe

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor July 13, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.