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Ken Burns, PBS and credibility

Posted by Mark Leccese  October 12, 2010 12:02 PM

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Two weeks ago, a handful of bloggers wrote scathingly about Ken Burns’ use of former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin — two prominent writers who have faced credible plagiarism and fabrication charges that you can read about here, here and here — as prominent interview subjects in Burns’ most recent documentary about baseball, “The Tenth Inning.”

Tom Scocca, a blogger for Slate, headlined his September 30 post “Mike Barnicle, Fraud and Plagiarist, Helps Guide America Through Baseball’s Era of Shame.” Scocca, to put it mildly, writes in anger.

Speaking of baseball and its scandals, the other big question I keep hearing from people who did watch Ken Burns’ “Tenth Inning” is: why did Burns give so much screen time to the cheaters? Not the baseball players — the baseball experts.

Was it some sort of subtextual commentary on the era of steroid cheats that Burns turned to Mike Barnicle to talk about the Red Sox? While we’re having history lessons: long ago, back when Roger Clemens was still pitching for Boston, Mike Barnicle was a columnist for the Boston Globe. Does anyone know why he is not a columnist for the Boston Globe anymore?

I wish that were just a rhetorical question. But since Mike Barnicle keeps showing up on people’s televisions and talking about stuff, apparently it isn’t. Mike Barnicle had to stop being a columnist for the Boston Globe because he got caught plagiarizing and fabricating, over and over again.

Joan Walsh at Salon, who didn’t much like “The Tenth Inning,” also has at Barnicle.

Burns transgresses in a few ways that deeply hurt his work. One is the use of Barnicle, a former Boston Globe columnist and current MSNBC contributor, as the Everyman to tell the Red Sox story. Barnicle’s a controversial guy, in Boston and nationwide. He lost his job at the Globe in 1998 after two plagiarism charges (which makes him a strange hero for a work that tells a sad tale of cheating).

I have no objection to Burns using Barnicle and Kearns in his documentary (other that that, as a baseball fan, I can think of, oh, ten thousand people who would be more interesting and more insightful on the subject of pro baseball since the mid-1990s than Barnicle and Kearns).

What amazes and troubles me is the response of PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, a distinguished veteran journalist who served as ombudsman for the Washington Post before taking on the ombudsman’s job at PBS.

In Getler’s mailbag for October 8, he addressed complaints from two Massachusetts viewers (under the heading “Other Voices?” about a third of the way down the page).

I cannot believe that Ken Burns chose to interview Mike Barnicle for Tenth Inning. Barnicle is the disgraced former [Boston] Globe columnist who invented several stories and was fired. He has no credibility, so why would Burns choose to gather information from him about the Red Sox? Barnicle relayed touching stories about his family’s affinity for the Sox, but how do we know they are true? Now that Burns has chosen a questionable source for this documentary, I must now call into question his previous work. How sad. A real disappointment.

Sandwich, MA

I was watching “The Tenth Evening” tonight and enjoyed the program, but I found it curious that the two primary people interviewed for the segment on the Boston Red Sox were both confirmed plagiarizers (Mike Barnicle and Doris Kearns Goodwin). I expect interviews with people of more integrity from PBS.

Burlington, MA

Getler’s response is startling.

We all, of course, make mistakes, and most of us, I think, believe in redemption and second chances.

And when it comes to capturing, on the air, the sheer grip of baseball on the devoted fan, families and entire communities, it is hard to beat Barnicle and Goodwin. So you can understand Burns’ artistic choice and this is, after all, baseball we are talking about. So as a viewer, the use of these two among many others didn’t bother me.

The ombudsman for PBS nonchalantly classifies plagiarism as a “mistake” most of us are ready to forgive.

Not so fast. Not me. Plagiarizing is one of the most immoral things a journalist can do. It involves not only the theft of someone else’s work, but the deliberate deception of readers. Plagiarism, by definition, requires intent — plagiarists know they are deliberately deceiving readers.

Again, like Getler, I have no objection to Burns featuring Barnicle and Goodwin in his documentary. It’s Burns' documentary; he can include whomever he wants.

But I do object — loudly — to the ombudsman for PBS brushing off plagiarism as a mistake we should stand ready to forgiven and forget.

Scocca, in his rant about Barmicle, rightly chastises today’s insular big-media world for precisely the mind-set of the PBS ombudsman.

Barnicle’s speedy crawl out of his journalistic grave has been one of the great ongoing mysteries of the business. He stole and he made stuff up, and he writes for Time magazine. Time magazine doesn’t care if a person steals or makes stuff up. He’s all over MSNBC. MSNBC doesn’t care. Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews don’t care about hanging out with a liar and a fraud and letting him talk to their viewers.

Barnicle’s friends in the media have no problem overlooking the transgressions he committed against journalism, and yet they still object when people outside the mainstream media wail about the clubbishness and, in this case, amorality of big media. The PBS ombudsman has only given those people another reason to wail.

Follow Mark Leccese on Twitter at @mleccese.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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