Top of Mind: Mike Barnicle
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.
Burnett: You said Bulger didn’t talk to you for 10 years… Did something happen to break the ice there?
Barnicle: You know, I think what happened there was it had to be maybe the early ’80s when I wrote a couple of things about his brother, Jimmy, Whitey, basically saying you can’t move an ounce of cocaine in South Boston without his approval. Bill Bulger was furious, insisting to me that his brother was not a drug dealer, had nothing to do with drugs… In retrospect, clearly he believed that then. Somewhere along the line, I think he probably came to the realization that his brother was into a lot more than he wanted to believe. I don’t know how the relationship thawed, but it began to thaw, and I had lunch with him one day over in South Boston, probably a year before the 2004 gubernatorial election, and he was so very proud to take me out to the parking lot and show me his car, and the bumper sticker on his car, which was a “Deval Patrick For Governor” bumper sticker, and of course, part of the reason was, he hated Tommy Reilly, the then Attorney General. There’s a story to it all. But I think Bill Bulger probably went at least four or five years without talking to me because he was so offended by my inaccuracy about his brother.
Burnett: Ever any encounters with a guy like Dershowitz?
Barnicle: Alan! Sure! I see Alan a lot, I see him at Fenway Park a lot. As a matter of fact, I got him a couple of tickets to a play off game a couple of years ago… Alan’s a good guy.
Burnett: But famously someone that you sparred with.
Barnicle: Sure, yeah. The sun comes up every day, you know. Every day is new.
Burnett: So you guys have buried the hatchet?
Barnicle: Yeah, oh yeah.
Burnett: Where do you get your news from on a daily basis?
Barnicle: I read about four or five papers a day, the actual print product. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the Times, Globe, Herald, and then the gift of the Internet. I look at several more. I don’t really browse many blogs.
Burnett: In some ways, do you think blogs have taken the place of newspaper columnists?
Barnicle: I realize this is the view of someone who has been in the print business for a long time. But I think blogging, by and large, is basically therapy. And I’m sure, and I know, that there are some terrific bloggers, and some legitimate bloggers. But I think by and large, a huge percentage of people who are blogging, are doing it for self-therapy. They have a voice. Who reads that voice? Who listens to that voice, reads, pays attention to that voice, I have no idea. My larger issue with blogging, is I think what it does, when it comes to newspapers, and I understand the cutbacks, the economics of newspapers, but when you take gifted reporters out, covering anything from a baseball game to a city council meeting and say, “You need to blog something on this, we need to get it on the website…” I think what you do, what happens, the danger is that you don’t get the opportunity to think enough about what you just witnessed or what someone just said.
One of the big shortcomings of the American newspaper industry, not so much magazines, because you have time, is this tendency to rush everything on the website, because you have to blog about it. In addition to it being a lot of work, writing is a lot of work, and [blogging] doesn’t give you the time to stop and think. To frame it up. There’s some reference point to what you just saw or what you just heard. Years ago, you’d go out and do the reporting for a column, something that happened in the morning or someone you saw in the morning. You’d have time to get a cup of at coffee the Java House on East Broadway in South Boston, go down to the water, sit there in the car, and think about what you just witnessed. And what it meant in a larger context. Violence in the city. Murder on Humboldt Avenue. What did it mean? Wasn’t there some other murder that occurred two blocks over? What did that have to do with that? Are they linked? Why is it that all of these things occur within six blocks of one another? But if you’re going to blog it, it’s going to go out of your mind. You’re not going to think about it. We don’t think enough in this business. Slow down. Think about things.
Burnett: Any columnists you consider a must read?
Barnicle: My friend Steve Lopez at the L.A. Times. I think pound-for-pound, he is the single best newspaper columnist going—city columnist. I think Kevin [Cullen]’s doing a good job [at the Globe]. But I don’t know that a lot of publishers want columnists.
Burnett: Well, it’s part of the Globe’s DNA.
Barnicle: If you look around a lot of newspapers, they’re in such critical shape. I don’t think a lot of publishers are looking for city columnists, metro columnists, someone to mix it up.
Burnett: Why not? Purely financial, or something deeper?
Barnicle: I think it probably is something deeper, and I’m not smart enough to figure it out, or see that deep. Part of it is financial, part of it is, I think one of the problems with the newspaper industry is that it’s run by a bunch of old white guys, and they think like old white guys. They’re just getting over the fact that TV is here to stay. They haven’t even gotten to the Internet, and what that’s doing to their business. And you know, it’s jump ball every day at four o’clock. What are we going to be tomorrow? And I’m not just talking this city. Other than the Times and the Post, and the Wall Street Journal, it’s: What are we going to be tomorrow? Are we going to be a city paper? A regional paper? What are we going to do about Condoleezza Rice in Mumbai? Where do we put it? On page one? On three? We have that great story about a baby being born on the middle of the Mass Pike. That’s a reader.
And the larger issue obviously is there is, and they’ll have to find a way to cope with it, is there’s no more news. You get it on your belt buckle. Fifteen seconds after it happens. Your toaster. Your blender. You’ve got 600 channels at home. That morning paper, the people who go out to the end of the driveway or to go into the variety store, to pick up that paper, they all look like Wilford Brimley. And these old white guys running these papers haven’t figured that out. They haven’t figured out that three blocks from here you have the Harvard Crimson, the Harvard Lampoon. And over there, hire some 23-year old kids, but bring them back into the building, show them a desk, take their phone away. Shut their phone off, and say “Hey kid, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning. Go out the door. Come back at five with a story.” And the kid will say, “What kind of a story?” Any fucking story. A story. Go get a story. Don’t sit here and call people up. Go get a story. Go ride the train. Go sit in the Boston Common. Watch people pass by. Try to imagine what they do for a living. Why is the guy wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe? Why is the 65-year old guy carrying a school bag? Why is the nurse crying sitting on the bench? Go write a story. People like to read about people. That’s never going to change.
Burnett: That’s something you obviously used to do. Collecting stuff. You’re still writing, but do you miss that stuff?
Barnicle: Yes, I do miss it. I was younger then, I like people. I still do it, I don’t write about it a whole lot, but I still do that sort of thing. I did it yesterday. I was in Greenwich Village, at a place called Viceroy, at 18th and 8th, sitting in there, having a cup of coffee with someone, just shooting the shit. Yeah, I miss the interaction that there used to be. I miss a lot of the people who are no longer in the business. I miss what the business used to be. I am glad it’s still around, I hope it’s around forever. I sometimes have my doubts. But the answer is yes. I don’t miss seeing my name in the paper.
Burnett: Why not?
Barnicle: I don’t know. I never really get a high out of it, the way some people do, I never sat there and thought, “I’ll show ’em” or “I’ll change things” or “this will have an impact.” I never thought like that. In some ways I think I’m fortunate that I never thought like that.
Burnett: In some ways, the columns seem to be animated by that sort of thing, that there was an agenda. That you had something to say, things you wanted people to be aware of, powerful people you wanted to be held accountable. It wasn’t driven by that?
Barnicle: Not really, no, because I think one of the most difficult things to do. You can make people laugh. You can make people cry. But I think it’s a bridge too far to make people think. If they do, if they think about it, if they pause for a second, and think about something you’ve written, then that’s a real bonus. But to get into it, thinking, “I’m going to make them think about this one…” It never worked for me.
Burnett: Could you do it three times a week, if you had to?
Barnicle: I could do it seven days a week. Still today. I am constantly amazed at the number of people who think I’m on vacation. The people who call me with story ideas, or something that happened to them or some injustice, no exaggeration, on the average of four or five times a week, I’ll bump into someone at the airport, at the ballpark or wherever who says, “You know, you wrote a thing about my brother-in-law, or my father.” On the average of a couple of times a week, I’ll get calls from someone who says, “Hey, Mike, my kid’s having a tough time and something happened to him…”