The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 37.0°F | Light Rain Fog/Mist

An End to Barnicle, and All That



Anders Hove

After he was accused of lifting someone else's brain droppings, Globe columnist Mike Barnicle sanctimoniously claimed that he was lazy and unprofessional, but not unethical. Then, after a week during which Barnicle Mania alternately ebbed and flowed, he was out. After proudly suffering two firings punctuated by other disciplinary actions, Barnicle did the right thing and resigned for family reasons. Or at least that's the official story.

Stop the presses! Now that Barnicle is out for good, I want to come forward with some additional information that bears on his story.

Namely, this: Mike Barnicle doesn't really exist. Never did. Never fabricated a column, never lifted a quote - never even lifted a pen. Never reviewed a book, sat at a press roundtable, or slammed a liberal. Not once.

The real story here is that Barnicle himself was a fabrication. Matt Storin down at the Globe concocted him as the columnist for Everyman. After polling major advertisers and the Globe's growth audience consisting of angst-ridden Beantown downtrodden, Storin determined that a white, male, middle-aged, working-class, liberal-bashing pudgy guy would fill the news hole nicely. A column photo of the charlatan Barnicle was produced and approved. The Globe was ready to hit the presses.

Except for one thing: content. Where was the paper going to get ideas to fill Barnicle's slot? After all, the broadsheet's own staff is packed with big city liberals fresh from J-school - these ethics-loving goodie-goodies would surely balk at filling Barnicle's ample shoes. And when they moved on to more prestigious and ethical publications like The New Republic, they'd let everyone in on the secret and Barnicle would be done for.

What was more, the Globe needed a veritable dung-heap of content. Initial projections showed that at least 125 columns would be needed per year. They couldn't scare up that much punditry from a single real columnist, let alone from some hoary dopplegnger with a day job.

The solution, in case you hadn't guessed it, was to employ a legion of ambitious college students from the local area. These individuals would have to keep the secret, knowing their record would be tarnished if they put "column fabricator" on their resumes. The students got good writing experience (hard to come by in this grammatically-strapped economy), and the Globe got the dross it was looking for.

When the student-generated content began rolling in, however, the editors knew they had a problem: style differed vastly from column to column. Some of this counterfeit pontification sounded downright intellectual. A tiny minority might even have been deemed "smart." Something had to be done - and fast - or the game was up.

From the high offices at Morrissey Boulevard a memo went forth. Actually, it was more of a template: "First three paragraphs: tell a story about some downtrodden worker. Next paragraph: trash liberals for not caring about this sort of thing because they're too snooty and only eat at Au Bon Pain. Remaining space: freestyle anecdotes.

Needless to say, this coup de main came out before my time on the Sham Columnist Working Group. Over the years it was honed and perfected. By the time I came on board they had you go through a five-day dissimulation training course on Thompson Island.

Those halcyon years working for the Barnicle Hoax Squad were a real joy. I met busloads of fascinating social-climbers: George Carlin, for instance - they guy was always ready with some crack about buying Tic Tacs with a bank card. And Steve Glass, what a gent. He set me up with his pal Alan Greenspan and got me a job trading bonds. Finally, I had some fascinating heart-to-heart chats with Peter Arnett. He let me in on a gut-wrenching tale about how he tried to defect from the Associated Press back in 'Nam. Thug editors from the New York Times Company dropped nerve gas in his general vicinity (the hacks called it "Operation Passwind"), then brainwashed him into rejoining the flock. I guess that explains the situation with his hair.

Then there was Elvis. The guy was much better at writing columns than I was. It was a pity to see him give it all up for a presidential bid back in '92.

After five years writing for Barnicle, I'm going to have a hard time giving it up. Our group of phony pundits had quite a legacy: over 4,000 columns in 25 years - what an accomplishment! Yes, I'll miss fabricating columns, but I do have plans: I'm moving to Aspen to live with Hunter S. Thompson - the guy's got a nice place and lots of connections. Most of all, he's associated with a part of journalism I've missed during my years with the Barnicle Flim-Flam: credibility.