Credibility a casualty in newsroom wars

Tuesday, August 11, 1998

Mike Barnicle’s bosses at The Boston Globe think the popular columnist lied when confronted with accusations that he cribbed a recent column from a George Carlin book. A month ago, they fired another popular columnist after discovering that she had made up people and quotes for a number of columns.

Similar offense, similar response, right? Well, not exactly.

First, after learning that Barnicle had lifted some one-liners from Carlin, Globe executives suspended the columnist. Then, when they decided he had fudged the truth when explaining his actions, they asked him to resign. Barnicle refused.

Now, while the columnist and Globe executives grappled over what to do next, other parties joined the fray. A major advertiser — and readers by a 2-to-1 ratio — demanded that Barnicle be retained, while members of the Globe news staff clamored for his removal. The result, announced today: Suspension, not firing.

Welcome to the newsroom wars.

Exacerbated by a string of recent embarrassments, the traditional tension between reporters and news executives threatens to devolve into all-out war.

The battle plan is painfully familiar:

  • Newsroom bosses publicly discipline reporters and distance themselves from their work.

  • The targeted reporters fight back.

  • Readers and viewers weigh in on one side or the other — or turn away in dismay or disgust.

    When the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News renounced its 1996 series on connections between the CIA-backed contras and crack trade, reporter Gary Webb left the newspaper and wrote a book on the subject, now receiving favorable reviews.

    When CNN fired producers April Oliver and Jack Smith after retracting the Operation Tailwind story, the two journalists went on the offensive, issuing a report defending their work and charging that their bosses crumpled under pressure from the military and government officials.

    When Philadelpia Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano could not get his bosses to publish his stories about the Philadelphia Archdiocese, he sent his stories to an independent weekly. When Robert Rosenthal, an Inquirer editor, explained his newspaper’s reluctance to run the stories, he made statements the reporter considered damaging to his professionalism. So Cipriano sued his bosses.

    The nature of these newsroom wars should not be overly simplified or emphasized. In most newsrooms on most days, journalists and their bosses form formidable teams that bring us a highly credible news reports. But the public in recent weeks has glimpsed an unprecedented amount of newsroom tension that has gone beyond the creative and approaches the destructive.

    At a time of crisis for the news media in general, reporters and editors need to rely on one another and support one another more than ever.

    Instead, many news executives worry about a few reporters who take risks with stories, who fabricate, who steal, and who lie to their bosses. And many reporters worry about a few bosses who don’t support them, won’t commit to in-depth reporting, won’t take risks, won’t fight lawsuits, and who seem to hold them to a different standard than they hold themselves.

    Many reporters believe they are responding responsibly to criticism of the press by going to the public, to another publication or even to court when they get in trouble in their own newsrooms. Many news executives believe they are responding responsibly by quickly renouncing stories and denouncing reporters when stories or practices come under fire.

    Meanwhile, their readers and viewers are caught in the middle with a significant question: How can we trust the news if reporters and their bosses can’t trust each other?