From AJR, September 1998 issue
Secrets And Lies
Strong indications that Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith was making up material had surfaced before the fabrications that led to her downfall, but the paper decided not to confront her.
By Sinéad OBrien
Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.
HER WORDS SANG TO READERS. They were heartfelt and they were proud and they were read. Patricia Smith's columns, landing on the doorsteps of a city that wears racial awareness on its sleeve, brought to the Boston Globe a black female voice so eloquent that it demanded to be heard. But in the end, that proved her downfall; many of the words people heard were not true.
She was raised a wordsmith; she said so in an apology to her readers on June 19, the day after resigning from the Globe for fabricating people and quotes in her columns. ``The terse blocked type below the headlines became living, breathing stories,'' Smith wrote, detailing her father's ritual of reading her the newspaper each night before bed. ``My daddy gave the newspaper a pulse,'' she wrote in her final column.
Smith's journalism career began in Chicago, where she grew up. Her father, who was murdered when she was 20, loved newspapers. A consummate self-starter, Smith began at the Chicago Daily News as a typist. Later she went to the Chicago Sun-Times as an editorial assistant.
As a columnist, she spoke for everyone. A glance at her body of work shows the connections she made with Bostonians in general, and her farewell to them underscores it. ``So to the welders, the B-boys, the preachers, and the surgeons, to the grocery clerks and bartenders and single mothers, to the politicians, PR flacks, spokespersons and secretaries.... I am sorry for betraying your trust,'' she wrote.
The public response confirmed Smith's value in the community. While journalism critics hung their heads, readers rallied behind her. ``We should not fail to acknowledge talent and contributions made, even in a time of sorrow,'' one reader wrote. Another condemned the extensive coverage of Smith's fall by writing, ``Is there nothing left that the Globe's sanctimonious editor can do to pillory Patricia Smith? Maybe tar and feather her? Sue her for every cent paid to her?''
These, and the dozens of pro-Smith calls to the newspaper's ombudsman, prompted Globe columnist Eileen McNamara to write, ``Sadly, a lot of readers apparently think she didn't do anything the rest of us don't do routinely.''
Smith, 43, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is an accomplished poet. She writes plays and stars in them; she's a member of a jazz band. She had a child at 21 and now raises her granddaughter. In her apology, Smith talked about the overwhelming pressure she placed on herself: ``To make up for the fact that I didn't get the `correct' start in journalism, I set out to be 10 times as good by doing 10 times as much.'' Overextending herself left little time for friend-making in the newsroom. Her column appeared twice a week; so did she.
``There was a void at that desk,'' says Greg Moore, the Globe's managing editor and the person who edited Smith's columns since October 1996. ``She was so busy doing so many things, one casualty was face time here.''
If Patricia Smith was driven to embellish her work at the Globe because she was pulled in too many directions, as she said, maybe now she will devote more time to just one thing. As one reader wrote, ``Journalism is the incorrect medium for her passions.''
WHEN SMITH'S PREDILECTION FOR fabrication came to light in June, it came as a shock to her readers and to the journalism community at large. But a small circle of top Globe editors knew there was reason to suspect that the paper's premier black columnist had a penchant for inventing people who might, as she later put it, ``slam home a salient point.''
In the Smith saga's unhappy aftermath, Globe Editor Matthew V. Storin is apt to remind critics of the adage, ``hindsight is 20/20.'' But there were warning signs well before the endgame that seemingly went ignored.
As far back as 1995, some of the quotes in Smith's columns, succinct and dead on, provoked quiet conversations among senior editors about their veracity. Were they in fact too good to be true? Globe editors investigated, and while they identified 28 people in her columns who couldn't be tracked down, the paper's leadership decided not to ask her flat out if she had lied.
Instead, Storin presented the ``rules of the road'' to Smith. All characters in her columns had to be real. And she had to give her editor fact-checking information. The columns were to be spot-checked after they ran to make sure they were true.
This was not the first newspaper where questions had been raised about the integrity of Smith's work.
In 1986, while an editorial assistant at the Chicago Sun-Times, Smith covered an Elton John concert. Her negative review attracted the attention of John's representative. Smith's piece had the performer wearing an outfit he hadn't worn and singing two songs he hadn't sung. And it said that the audience hadn't been pleased by John's performance, although promoters claimed he was well-received. The representative also said Smith hadn't picked up her press tickets.
Globe Arts Editor Scott Powers was at the Sun-Times at the time, as assistant managing editor for features. He says when Smith was asked about the discrepancies, she insisted she had attended the concert but said she had been on a date and had paid more attention to her date than to the show. ``There were some on staff who felt she never attended the show, but she did produce notes for me and I never heard any real proof that she was not at the show,'' Powers says. Smith said she watched from lawn seats purchased by her date.
Weeks after the incident, Storin became editor of the Sun-Times. The paper had run a correction about the concert, but Storin was approached with the question of how to punish Smith for her negligence.
Storin assumed Smith was a college-aged intern, given her youthful looks. ``She got distracted. She came with her boyfriend and that's how she fouled up some of what she said,'' he says. ``She was not covering the legislature or anything like that. I gave her a lecture.'' Smith, who actually was 30 at the time, was not allowed to write for several months.
Powers was not at the Globe when Smith was hired to join the Living Arts section in 1990, but he says her mistake at the Sun-Times seems common enough among young critics--combining work and play. Storin was editing the New York Daily News at the time. When he was called by the Globe for a reference check, he mentioned the concert incident, ``because it was the only thing I knew about her.''
After four years on the arts beat, Smith became a Metro columnist. The concert fiasco was long forgotten. ``Since more than eight years had passed, I did not mention this incident to anyone at the Globe when Smith was made a columnist,'' Powers says. ``And I was not asked about her.''
IN THE YEAR THAT FOLLOWED, SMITH'S WRITING championed all people, not just those of her race. As Globe Ombudsman Jack Thomas put it in a July 20 column: ``Although she wrote aggressively from the African-American perspective, Smith cannot be accused of a pattern of fabricating racist white characters.'' Ultimately, it might have been that reaching out to all classes of people that tipped off newsroom colleagues. When that lyrical, clear voice cropped up in too many characters with too many different backgrounds, the buzz began.
Suspicions might have gone unnoticed were it not for Walter Robinson, then the Globe's assistant managing editor for local news. Robinson, who had championed the idea of making Smith a columnist, was told in late 1995 that someone on the copy desk had raised questions about the level of truth in Smith's work. About the same time he received a call from a reader expressing doubt in the existence of the central figure in a November 13, 1995, column.
The column focused on a man named Ernie Keane of Somerville, Massachusetts, who supposedly had called Smith in the newsroom on a Sunday morning to talk about President Clinton's upcoming visit to Boston. Keane purportedly wanted Smith to relay a message to the president for him. Smith wrote that she promised the man she would include his message for the president in one of her columns.
Keane, now listed among the characters in Smith's work the Globe considers nonexistent, is quoted as saying: ``I ain't real smart and I don't have no fancy words to make folks sit up and take notice. I'm just ordinary, but there are a lot of ordinary folks here getting sick of screaming and no one hearing. Our country's supposed to take care of us when we get old, that's our reward for working all these years and living here in this so-called democratic place. Just tell him that. When you see him, tell him that for Ernie Keane.''
Now Smith's work was suspect in and out of the newsroom. For Robinson, it was time to take action.
The editor, who declined to comment for this article, went to Executive Editor Helen W. Donovan and Storin in late 1995 or early 1996--no one is sure exactly when--with his suspicions. They decided he should follow up on them. Unfortunately, Robinson's fears seemed on target; attempts to contact numerous people quoted in Smith's work were futile. He went to the paper's top editors with the bad news.
Editor Storin moved cautiously, not eager to fire one of his stars over what might be an unfortunate misunderstanding. As for the call from the reader who was positive there was no Ernie Keane, Storin says, it's ``a vague complaint. You can't call and say, `That person's not true.' ''
Storin was acutely aware of the latitude given in the past to such legendary columnists as Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin, who made extensive use of clearly fictional characters to drive their points home. Royko's Slats Grobnik and Breslin's Fat Thomas were Everyman characters, symbols representing an entire stratum of people. And so the editor was reluctant to take harsh action against Smith.
And there was another factor. Columnist Mike Barnicle, a 25-year fixture on the Metro page affectionately known throughout the city as ``Boston Mike,'' a Globe franchise player, had been accused of fabrications sporadically over the years.
It began in 1973, when a gas station owner denied making a racial slur Barnicle quoted him as using. Barnicle was sued, and although parts of the quotation were in his notebook, a judge ordered the columnist to pay $40,000 to the gas station owner because the entire quote couldn't be verified.
Boston Magazine for a time published a regular feature called ``Unbelievably Barnicle,'' which raised questions about Barnicle's veracity but never proved any improprieties.
A quote Barnicle attributed to lawyer Alan Dershowitz in a 1990 column drew even more fire. Focusing on the high-profile lawyer's publicity seeking, the ``Open Mouth, Get in Paper'' column ended with Dershowitz saying, ``I love Asian women, don't you? They're...they're so submissive.''
In a letter to the Globe and in columns in the Boston Herald, Dershowitz denied making the comment. He claims the columnist admitted to him and to mutual friends that he had fabricated the quotation. Barnicle stands by the quote.
In the wake of the Smith contretemps, the Globe this summer reviewed 364 columns by Barnicle, finding no improprieties. But two months after Smith resigned, Barnicle followed suit, quitting after serious doubts were raised about the veracity of a column he had written in 1995 (see Bylines, page 11).
Says Storin, ``Columnists of the Breslin/ Royko nature have always been a kind of gray area.'' When concerns were raised in late 1995, he hoped Smith was merely emulating them, using what were clearly fictional characters, rather than passing off fictional characters as real people.
``I had to manage the situation as I thought would be fair and honest for the paper,'' Storin says. ``If we confronted Patricia Smith and she admitted it, we would have fired her on the spot. But then there would have been questions about Mike Barnicle, and we would have had to deal with those.''
The editor feared that Smith was aware of the allegations about Barnicle and may have gotten the impression that a little fiction was OK. ``It could have been the noise about Mike, unfair though it may be, gave her the wrong impression,'' he says.
Storin consulted Donovan, the executive editor. They decided not to ask Smith if she had lied in any columns. Either by chance or craft, no questionable figure in the 28 columns that Robinson studied could be proved nonexistent. Every suspiciously pat quote was attributed to a person with no defining characteristic, such as a traceable occupation.
Storin is quick to note that it's difficult to prove a negative. ``The fact that these people didn't have telephone numbers one by one wouldn't be a story,'' he says.
So why didn't the Globe's top leadership simply ask Smith point-blank why no one could be found? One reason, Storin says, is that they anticipated her reaction. ``She'd say, `They're out on the street, they move around a lot, they don't have phones,' '' he says.
ROBINSON DID TALK TO SMITH TWICE. in early 1996 with what he had found--or what he hadn't found. Smith simply didn't respond; she didn't have to. Following orders, no one asked her the question that could have ended it all: Why can't these people be located?
And so rather than question Smith about the elusive characters in her columns, Storin decided to give Smith and Barnicle a refresher course in Journalism 101. The editors devised ``rules of the road,'' now an empty phrase whose very mention can cause Globe staffers to cringe. The columnists were to be told exactly what was expected from them--namely, everything in their columns had to be real.
Donovan says the guidelines weren't aimed at McNamara, a columnist with an impeccable record. Storin says no questions had been raised about McNamara's work, and he didn't present the rules to her.
But the Globe editors did try to send Smith a message. ``It was put to her in a sense that would let her know we had a good bit of evidence she's fabricating,'' Donovan says. ``Essentially, the decision was to put her on notice: She had to cut it out.''
Editors met with Smith and Barnicle separately in the editor's office soon after Robinson confirmed the suspicions about Smith's work. ``It was proposed we talk to Mike and Pat and tell them we're implementing a documentation system on unnamed or unidentified people in their columns,'' Storin says. ``Then I knew that everyone would be truly advised.''
Storin has said Smith seemed ``shaken'' by the meeting, and afterwards the quality of her work went down. She began writing mostly commentary, reacting to news events.
The paper now has confirmed 52 suspicious columns since 1995. Of those, only two occurred in 1996, the year following the ``rules of the road'' meeting.
While Smith was given a second chance, Storin says there was no way she could survive a similar problem in the future. Once the rules had been presented to her, there was simply no margin for error.
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