Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Newspapers Hold Columnists to Rising Standard for Truth Resignation of Boston Writer Raises Debate over Storytelling vs. Accuracy and Authenticity

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Newspapers Hold Columnists to Rising Standard for Truth Resignation of Boston Writer Raises Debate over Storytelling vs. Accuracy and Authenticity

Article excerpt

Cranky columnists who use eloquence to champion the inelegant common man have long been a staple of big-city newspapers.

Traditionally - and ink journalists can be as tradition-bound as the Amish - these star writers have been accorded much freedom in their work.

That may now be changing. The ouster of Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle over charges of fabricated stories could mean that columnists everywhere now face tighter scrutiny.

"Columnists have historically been given great literary license. Now a new, more literal news standard is being applied to writers like Mike Barnicle," says Everette Dennis, professor of communication and media management at New York's Fordham University.

Behind this shift may be an American culture that is rapidly losing patience with those who shade the truth.

"Maybe the public is moving toward a greater commitment to the fidelity of information," says Mr. Dennis.

Chicago Tribune opinion-page columnist Clarence Page agrees that columnists are being held to a higher standard.

Before television, he says, newspaper standards and ethics were looser and competition was less intense. People turned to newspapers and columnists more for entertainment. Not only columnists, but reporters and rewrite people would embellish the facts to stretch out a story.

Fictional characters

Jimmy Breslin had a recurring character in his columns, "Marvin the Torch," a professional arsonist. Did he really exist? "Maybe, maybe not," says Mr. Page. "But nobody made a big deal about it because it was such a good read."

In Mr. Barnicle's case, "I can only speculate that he had a little of the old attitude, 'Don't let truth get in the way of a good story,' " says Page. "But that's a temptation that has to be resisted at all costs."

Barnicle's Wednesday resignation from The Boston Globe followed a similar departure in June by columnist Patricia Smith, who left the newspaper after an internal review turned up fabricated people and quotes in four of her columns.

Many columnists and media critics express sadness over Barnicle's fall from grace - but offer little sympathy. "All of us feel the pressure to produce columns that beat the competition," says E.J. Montini, columnist at the Arizona Republic. "But what value is there to your work when you perform it dishonorably?"

Likening Barnicle's alleged fabrications to an athlete taking steroids, Mr. Montini adds: "You might win the 100-yard-dash, but is it fun to win a sporting event by cheating?"

Fictional characters based on common folks and colorful neighbors have long been the staple of newspaper columnists like Mr. …

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