Top of Mind: Mike Barnicle
Is it possible Mike Barnicle is still the most obsessed-about journalist in town? One could make the case: Consider the fuss when he joined Jack Connors and Jack Welch in trying to buy the Globe, and the further fuss that followed his rumored job talks with WBUR. Meanwhile, more than a decade after losing his marquee Globe column for sins against journalism, Barnicle is a fixture on NBC and MSNBC, and fields assignments from Newsweek and Time. On 12/5 at the Charles Hotel, he talked with Boston about those projects—and shared his thoughts on a few other topics, too.
Burnett: It’s interesting how much of it you lay at the feet of the people in your business, the press.
Barnicle: I think, listen, it’s still a great, but vastly diminished business, due to economics and everything like that. I don’t think we treat people very well in the media. Both as customers, and I call them customers, of newspapers and magazines, or TV news, and we don’t understand that the greatest story that we could tell each and every day, is the story of the people around us. The people who buy the product, who buy the papers, who buy the magazines. And there’s an attack mentality, especially in newspapers, TV is basically skywriting, especially in newspapers, that makes people uncomfortable. It just does. And to ignore that, to deny, that that’s the case, is foolish. You know, I’m not saying every edition you have to have all good news in the paper, that can’t happen. But the things that we fail at, I happen to think, my opinion, are the most critical aspects of our culture. We fail to cover public education in the country, the way we should. Whether we’re talking about the Boston public school system, the New York, or the Washington public school system.
We fail to cover it, and I’ve always believed that you can go into a third or a fourth grade class in this city or any other city and you are going to be looking at the face of the future of that particular city. And we have no frame of reference for it. There are very few people working at the New York Times, or the Boston Globe, or the Washington Post, who have a couple of kids in public schools who are just scraping to get by. We live a pretty comfortable life, comparatively speaking, members of the media. We get a paycheck, and we’ve lost—I think, for no other reason than the demographics of the business—we’ve lost the capacity to feel part of the community where we grew up. That’s obviously the result of a lot of different things.
When I first worked at the Boston Globe, everyone in the newsroom went to places like Boston University, where I went, or Boston College. There were several people from Harvard there. They could tell you all the stops on the Red Line. They grew up here. They lived here for long periods of time. Their family was from here. They would actually know people who were firefighters, or cops, of school teachers. It’s nobody’s fault, and that’s happened less and less. It’s happened all over. It’s become like a prized profession. You went to Duke University. You’re from Pennsylvania. What are you doing here for Boston magazine? It’s a bonus of a job.
Burnett: When you were doing the column, you certainly wrote a lot about the people who were the readers, the customers… Does this represent an evolution in your own thinking about the role, and the effect of that kind of coverage?
Barnicle: No. I’ve felt like this for years. For years. If you look back, I don’t know what you’d call me attacking someone. I used to go to the State House to the office of the late [Senate President] Kevin Harrington, and sit on his couch, and smoke a cigar. I mean, Bill Bulger didn’t speak to me for about 10 years, because I accused his brother of being the kingpin of the drug trade in South Boston in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but I have had relationship with these people. I liked them. I liked politicians.
It was obviously a different time, a different atmosphere. I think we do a lot better job today of investigative journalism, oddly enough. I think, like the Globe spends more time, more money on it, but you’d be hard put to find better pieces that the old Spotlight team used to do on no-show jobs in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but there was less antagonism, [between] the subject and the newspaper people doing it.
The no-show jobs thing, one of the big elements of that series — God I remember it like it was last week — was Sonny McDonough, former Governor’s councilor, from South Boston, and he used to spend most of the year in Marathon Beach, Florida. The night before the installment that features Sonny, I called him up down in Marathon Beach, it was about 10 o’clock at night. I said, “Hey, it’s Mike Barnicle from the Globe, sorry I have to be a pain in the ass.” “Mike,” he says, right away, “Why change now?” I said tomorrow they’re doing the thing in the paper, the no-show job. You haven’t been to a council meeting in seven months. I said, you know, do your constituents have your phone number down there? Can they get a hold of you? How much would it cost to get a hold of you if they have a problem? He says, right away, “Mike, all my constituents use slugs.” It was better back then. You sound like you’re 110 years old when you talk about it, but there was less antagonism in the air than there is now.
And that’s just not the fault of newspapers. The appetite for cable TV, they’ll tell you cable is conflict, that’s added to it as well. The explosion of the Internet, that plays a part in it. Cable is conflict.