Top of Mind: Mike Barnicle
Burnett: Is it possible today for someone to have the influence, the readership and the audience that you once had?
Barnicle: I don’t think so. I think, in a 10-year span, when you think about the power and the reach of the Internet, basically it didn’t exist 10 years ago. When you think about the influence of the cable news channels: it was CNN, and Fox had just started, MSNBC had just started. They basically were not relevant in terms of news gathering, news dispensing, news devouring, ten years ago. BlackBerrys basically weren’t around. Cell phone news was in its very early stages. If you had 15 channels on your cable, you were thrilled.
Burnett: I guess I’m wondering, for columnists, someone to sort it all out for you, someone to bring a singular voice, that’s a different thing. Seems to me. at least, none of those things compete exactly with what a columnist can do.
Barnicle: Well yeah, but you have to break through all of that clutter, and there’s a whole lot more clutter now then there was then. A whole lot more clutter. Just look at the numbers. The Sunday paper was doing around 800,000. What does it do today? 500,000 maybe? The daily paper was doing 500,000 then, what does it do today, 300,000? Just the numbers alone would tell you that it’s going to be tougher today to do it. I still think the biggest obstacle to that is all of the other things that are out there competing for people’s attention. It was far easier to get people’s attention for something you wrote or something that happened years ago, than it is today.
Burnett: Kevin Cullen….
Barnicle: I helped him get his gig at the paper. He was at UMass. Curtis Wilkie and I were out there talking. Cullen was there. It was Ralph Whitehead’s class. Kevin had graduated, and he basically stood up and asked us, “How come [former editor] Tom Winship won’t hire Irish-Catholic kids that didn’t to go Harvard?” And we sort of said, “Fuck you. He does.” But we did mention it to Winship, Kevin came in, had a couple of interviews, and they hired him.
Burnett: Have you talked to him since he got the column? Has he come to you for advice?
Barnicle: I’m not in the advice business. I am not in the mentoring business. But I talk to him a lot.
Burnett: The thing with him.. it seemed at least, it’s too easy, admittedly, I always have reservations about journalists passing judgment, but we do. But he had a voice and has almost had to grow comfortable with this media and platform that he now has, as well as the power that comes along with it.
Barnicle: Well, that’s the way it is with anything. You could sign for $10 million a year to play over at the ballpark, and every day you go over there and say, “Jesus, I better go 2 for 3 today.”
The thing with media criticism is that if someone is criticizing you, who has never met you, has never shaken your hand, never looked you in the eye, never looked you in the eye, never introduced themselves in person, and they are going to spend a good portion of their life critiquing what your write, or what you do, in the larger sense of the meaning “do,” you should pay no attention to them. What would they ever be able to tell you about yourself and your work if they don’t know you, if they’ve never met you? There’s criticism, there’s book reviews, and there’s movie reviews. But the intensely personal outlook that a lot of these critics bring to the day, whether it’s Kevin Cullen, or whether me, or whether it’s anyone…
Burnett: And you’ve been on the other end of that.
Barnicle: I never gave a shit about that stuff. You know why? I never read it. Call me thickheaded or whatever, but I always came to it with exactly that point of view. How could they, anyone, sit there and say, “Oh, he did this because of this,” when I never met them? Never spoke to them. Was never in the same room with them. Call me up and ask me. So, I think Kevin probably feels a little similarly.
Burnett: Did you hold yourself to the same standards when you were critiquing the work of a public figure?
Barnicle: No. There were very many times, depending on the time of the day, when I would just bang a cheap shot at quarter of five. Boom. Many, many times.
Burnett: Regret any of those?
Barnicle: Oh, God. I can’t think of any one when it comes to elected officials. I can remember feeling little badly, this is years ago, writing something about Ken Harrelson, who was doing the commentary on Red Sox games [on Channel 38], and I wrote something particularly snarky about him. And you know, back to what I was just saying, I bumped into him at the ballpark a couple of days later, and he was pissed and said, “Why don’t you call me? Why don’t you ask me why I do this stuff, how I made that mistake? Jesus.” And he was right, and I am sure there other people who got lit up briefly by me or others who think the same thing.
Burnett: Is that as big a part of what you do now?
Barnicle: I might be delusional; I don’t think it was a big part of anything I ever did. I don’t think I was in it to light a lot of people up on a daily basis. I choose to think, and I’ve never done this, but if you go back and look at the body of work, a lot of it was about ordinary people you could go find today.
Burnett: I wasn’t suggesting it was the dominant theme. I was more getting at how you involved as a writer, with time, and how if you were doing it three times a week, or seven, How, if at all, it would it be different today?
Barnicle: It would be different today. Because of my age and what you accumulate during your life, your experiences, things you’ve witnessed, things that have happened to you, things that have happened to other people, I think today it would be a more personal column. I very rarely used the words “I” or “should.” I think I would inject myself more into the piece today than I ever did then.
Burnett: That’s something some of us have noticed in your TV commentary. A tonal shift that put you more in the—I don’t know how you feel about the term “elder statesman.” Is there a little bit of that in what you’re providing?
Barnicle: I think, as with some people, I’m probably more reflective today than what I used to be. I’m not as quick to jump the gun as I used to be. Hopefully because I’m older and I’ve had a few more experiences. I’ll throw that into the hopper and bring it to the table, hopefully, I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I am more reflective than I used to be. I am certainly more aware of the shortcomings that everyone has.
Burnett: Aware and more forgiving?
Barnicle: Much more forgiving. Much more forgiving. I’m a Catholic. We’re in the forgiveness business. So, I think that’s probably been heightened over the past 10 or 15 years. Doesn’t make you anymore insightful. But it might give you the appearance of being more thoughtful.
Burnett: Wondering if there’s another word you might throw in there, more humble?
Barnicle: Well that’s an interesting adjective. Humble, humility. I think if you talk to people who know me, and who’ve known me all my life, I would like to think they would say I’ve always been humble. I’ve got a lot to be humble about. I’ve got a lot to be grateful about. But there’s this persona you can acquire by doing nothing, other than having people who dont know you, write about you or talk about you. I guess you could be given a coat of boastfulness, or seem a tough guy.
Burnett: With the Herald, it seems it didn’t play out exactly as promoted on their side?
Barnicle: That was a case of me having to many other things to do. If I didn’t have all the other stuff to do, that I still have, it probably would have been better for the Herald. I just couldn’t do it. I could do it. I could mail it in. But I didn’t want to do that. They were paying me an awful lot of money, and they don’t have an awful lot of money. I’m having dinner with [publisher] Pat Purcell tonight actually. It seemed to me after a while, it wasn’t a very good fit. Largely because of me, not them.
Burnett: In making the choice that you made then, you had a lot of other things going on, and chose to stay with those, rather than drop those. Why did you go that way?
Barnicle: Because I knew most of the people I was working with at NBC, and I’m like a pack animal. I am comfortable with the familiar. I didn’t want to give up that comfort. I didn’t want to drop the things I was doing, and start doing things with a whole new group of people—many of whom I did not know. I didn’t want to end up screwing my two employers, the Herald and NBC, so I said, “See you later.” And I still enjoy the option of writing when I want to write. The main reason I went the other way is because I knew everybody, in Washington and New York.
Burnett: I guess the reason for my own fascination—the perception was that you were back as a Boston columnist. It would be such a priority, and pack animal or not…
Barnicle: The business is not what it used to be, for all the reasons we discussed previously. It just isn’t. So 15 years ago, I probably would have invested much more energy into it than I did, but it’s the change in the business was such that, we talked just a few minutes ago about impact, influence. You would want to feel you have a little impact, and if that’s not there, then, you know, Why am I doing this?
Burnett: You’re not a romantic about, you know, for print’s sake, which I might have walked in here thinking you might have been for some reason.
Barnicle: No. Maybe once was, but not anymore.
Burnett: The WBUR thing. [There were rumors] you might have some kind of recurring role there. What was that all about?
Barnicle: I have no idea.
Burnett: Serious job talks?
Barnicle: No. Apparently, apparently, there are huge numbers of people in the Boston media establishment who are so insecure in their own positions that they fear me coming in to see Paul La Camera for lunch, which I guess is sort of flattering, in a sense. But other than that…It is what it is.
Burnett: And it is a curious thing. None of the issues you get locally translates with these folks that you know on the national level or in New York or outside of 128. There’s a gulf there, or a disparity.
Barnicle: We live in perhaps the most parochial area of the United States. And clearly off the reaction of the WBUR thing, there obviously must be more than several people in the local media who think Lake Persimmon is the Pacific Ocean, that this is the entire media world here. And apparently some of them feel very threatened by anyone coming in the door. Not just me, but especially me. I have no explanation for that. I don’t know them. No one ever called me, from WBUR or anywhere else and said, “What are you doing? How can you think of coming over here? We’re better than you.” I never heard that. I never spoke to Paul La Camera about “I’ll do this three days a week, and you’ll pay me this, and I’ll do that.”
Burnett: How does all of that hit you on a personal level?
Barnicle: It doesn’t. I get amused by it when it happens. But I am extraordinarily lucky. I live a marvelously ordinary life. Most of the people I see over the course of the week are people I’ve known for years. We have seven children. We’re invested in all of our kids. They keep us very busy, and they keep us very happy. I have a wonderful marriage. So, if someone is going to get bent out of shape at WBUR because I show up there one day, I don’t really give a shit, and I don’t really think about it. I am sure maybe some of them, and not necessarily just at that particular place, and there are an awful lot of really small people in this life of ours. We all meet them, but I have no time for them.
Burnett: I was going to ask if you have any thoughts about semi-retiring?
Barnicle: When you retire, you’re dead.
Burnett: What’s something else that would surprise people about you?
Barnicle: I don’t know. I’m not cute or whatever. Maybe how ordinary my life is. Maybe that.
Burnett: You talked about your kids, your work. What’s it filled with, other than family?
Barnicle: Baseball. I have 10 season tickets. People were buying beachfront property. I was buying season tickets.
Burnett: How many games do you get to?
Barnicle: About 60. I usually arrange the work schedule around the baseball schedule. My work schedule is altered drastically from April through early October.
Burnett: How do you feel about the team? Any one player that fascinates you?
Barnicle: What do they need? They need a bat. They need a stick.
Burnett: I was surprised you agreed to this. Should I have been?
Barnicle: No. Why were you surprised that I agreed to do this interview?
Burnett: Because of the magazine’s history.
Barnicle: It gets to what we were talking earlier, and this is the truth, on my children. On my children… I guess on the average of 10 out of 12 issues a year, for a period of several years, I understand, you’d have one thing or another on the magazine, touching me up. On what? I don’t know. No insult intended, I never read it, never looked at it, and on my children, in the course of how many years it went on, I never had, I don’t think, more than three people mention it to me. And that’s no reflection on your magazine or your ability as an editor, and you probably weren’t even there then. So on my children, that’s an honest answer.
Burnett: Do you still smoke cigars?
Barnicle: I do. Cubans. Cohiba Robustos.
Burnett: Your doctor cannot like that.
Barnicle: I smoke maybe two or three a month ’cause they’re so expensive.