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Patricia Smith's Virtual Reality

by Ken Sanes

According to accounts that appear in the Boston Globe, Editor Matthew Storin first became aware that columnist Patricia Smith was fabricating people in her columns in late 1995 or early 1996. Walter Robinson, an editor at the newspaper, had heard some "low level chatter in the newsroom" about Smith's columns. In addition, the Globe had received a telephone call from a reader expressing doubts about a column by Smith.

In response, Robinson studied Smith's columns from 1995 and submitted a large number of those he feared contained falsehoods to Editor Storin and another editor. He also met with Smith twice and presented his findings, but received no response from her.

When Storin then met with Smith, according to the Globe, "he voiced concern, but did not ask her directly whether she had fabricated column material" and he took no action against her. Storin failed to seek this information despite the fact that he was also aware of another allegation that Smith had written an inaccurate story about an Elton John concert she falsely claimed to have attended at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986. Smith said she had attended the concert. But she never picked up press tickets and there were significant errors in her description of the event. The Sun-Times, which ran a correction, didn't let her write for several months after that.

What Storin did -- instead of demanding to know the truth from Smith -- was institute a formal monitoring procedure in which she and two other Metro columnists would be required to submit evidence that people described in their columns were real. The presentation of evidence was accepted as verifying the existence of the people in question. This monitoring, which affected only new columns, lasted a while and then it mostly stopped.

Most people reading this account would conclude that Storin's delicate handling of this situation was what would be referred to -- in the indelicate words of post-Watergate journalism --  as a cover-up. Storin obviously knew at the time that Smith had fabricated people in her columns. But he embarked on a don't-ask-don't-tell approach, neither inquiring whether the people were invented nor revealing the existence of this situation to readers.

Storin's failure to act bore poison fruit in June of this year when the Globe was forced to reveal that Smith had again been caught fabricating characters and had resigned. According to the Globe's account, the series of events that led to the announcement began in mid-May when Robinson had what he has described as "a chance encounter with other members of the staff," who were concerned about a May 11 Smith column about a cancer patient named Claire.

When he conducted a review of recent columns, he discovered  "a return to the pattern that aroused suspicions before -- named people with incomplete identifiers saying things that in some cases seemed more eloquent than one would expect."

The columns, which were written in April and May, included a May 11 column that, according to the Globe, quoted the fictitious cancer patient, Claire "reacting to news of cancer therapies that showed promise in mice. Claire, the centerpiece of the story, was quoted as saying, 'I'm not proud. Right away, I said, 'Rub it on my skin, pop it to me in a pill, shoot me up with it.' If I could find a way to steal it I would. Hell, if I could get my hands on it, I'd swallow the whole...mouse.' "

The Globe's "discovery" that Smith was engaging in these fabrications may have occurred just in time to save the Globe from having others discover it for them. Dan Kennedy, media critic for the Boston Phoenix, had recently observed that Smith was trying to substitute writing for reporting. "Much in demand for speaking engagements and poetry readings, she sometimes seems to leave herself barely any time to report, so she must try to write her way out of a deadline jam," Kennedy wrote in the May 21-28 edition of the Phoenix. In addition, the period of May and June was one in which waves of anxiety rippled through the world of journalism over the possibility that journalists would be found to be involved in ethical violations. Among other causes for the concern, a New Republic writer had been caught fabricating information; Brill's Content, a magazine of media criticism was going to come out in June with hard-hitting articles on the failures and corruptions of the news business; and there was a growing amount of media criticism in much of the mainstream media.

It is in this climate of increased scrutiny that the Globe rediscovered Smith's fabrications. But stories by the Globe finally coming clean with the public have, in turn, raised a host of new questions. No explanation is given, for example, of how it is possible that such an obviously invented quote as the one above from the nonexistent cancer patient could get by editors or why it wasn't spotted the next day in the newspaper. In addition, according to the Globe's account, there appears to have been a gap of as long as a month -- from mid-May to June 17 -- between the time Storin's management team became concerned about the new fabrications and the time Smith was asked if the people were real. During part of that time, the Globe was checking official lists, such as voter registration lists, to determine if any of the questionable people referred to in Smith's columns actually appeared anywhere. But that can't explain the failure to go to Smith immediately, particularly since she had already been told the Globe would periodically ask her to prove the identity of those she referred to in the columns.

Mostly, the Globe's stories seem designed to smooth over these and a host of other issues. One of the most important things the Globe's coverage does is provide Storin's rationale for why he retained Smith and concealed her earlier fabrications in 1996. Storin didn't press the issue with Smith in 1996, we are told, because there were already longstanding questions about whether another columnist, Mike Barnicle, had fabricated information in his own columns.

Here is how the first paragraph of a June 21, 1998, story in the Globe explains it: "Nearly three years ago, Boston Globe editors first saw evidence of the fabrication problem that culminated in columnist Patricia Smith's resignation from the paper on Thursday. But she was given a second chance, in part, because Globe Editor Matthew V. Storin was concerned that the paper had never really 'addressed...head on' lingering accusations that columnist Mike Barnicle had also included false information in his pieces."

The story expands on this a few paragraphs down, with a quote from Storin that refers to Smith's race (she is black) and makes clear that race was a factor in his decision: "Storin said that when possible problems with Smith surfaced several years ago, she 'entered the framework' in which the long-standing questions about Barnicle existed. 'I knew going way back that people said Barnicle made things up...To the best of my knowledge, the paper had not addressed the Barnicle  questions head on. I had this very talented black woman.... How then can I take action against this woman under this circumstance?' "

In other words, because the Globe had failed to deal with allegations of fabricated information regarding one columnist, it therefore felt obligated to conceal the existence of allegations against another. The problem with this, of course, is that it is based on the idea that the Globe's obligations are to the columnist and to a very odd ideal of racial fairness, rather than to readers and truth. It is an ideal of racial fairness that led the Globe to offer Boston's black community a fraud as a columnist and public spokesperson.

But the Globe's official account of its actions and reasons hasn't gone unchallenged, although the issues haven't received anything like the airing they should be getting.

In a column after the revelation, Media Critic Kennedy, of the Phoenix, wrote: "Storin concedes that after the 1995 incident, he deliberately didn't ask Smith whether she had faked any of her columns. 'If she said she had, she was gone,' Storin told me this week.

"True, Storin instituted a fact-checking system for all three in January 1996," wrote Kennedy. "But by having its metro columnists report to overextended senior editors (in Smith's case, to managing editor Greg Moore), the paper made it that much easier for falsehoods to slip through."

Kennedy also refers to unnamed staff members at the Globe who criticize Storin and say Smith's work should never have been submitted for a Pulitzer.

" 'What was he doing, crossing his fingers and hoping no one would find out?" asks one disgusted staffer. "Everybody knew and nobody knew. They didn't want to know."

The actions of the Globe's editor also drew comment from Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post and resulted in an exceptionally blunt column in Salon Magazine. (These links are no longer available.) But the most important criticism came from a Globe columnist, because it appeared in the newspaper. According to Metro Columnist Eileen McNamara "An honorable commitment to open these pages to people long unrepresented led to a less-than-honorable tradeoff. Patricia Smith's images were so mesmerizing, her rage so galvanizing, that we chose not to see the deceit at their core.

"It was the worst sort of racism that kept us from confronting the fraud we long suspected. If we did ask, and she did tell, we might lose her, and where would we be then?"

"But the events of the last week are not about gender or racial bias or the glass ceiling," McNamara concludes. "They are about journalistic integrity, a phrase Patricia Smith and her enablers at this newspaper have reduced to an oxymoron."

What McNamara is saying is that it is the management and institution of the Globe itself that is responsible for what has taken place. Contrary to what the Globe and its coverage would lead people to believe, this isn't only about a renegade columnist, but about a newspaper that has failed in its most essential task.

In fact, even after everything that had been revealed, the Globe management on June 19 gave Smith space for a farewell column.

"I wanted the pieces to jolt...So I tweaked them to make sure they did. It didn't happen often, but it did happen," she wrote.

On June 30, Matthew Storin was forced to make the embarrassing revelation that 20 more columns* had been discovered in which the Globe has been unable to document the identities of people referred to. If that account turns out to be reliable, than it appears that Smith's claim that "it didn't happen often," was her farewell lie to readers.

 

Go to the next article: Barnicle and Dershowitz: When Worlds Collide or to the main page: Cover-Up at the Boston Globe or to the Homepage for the Transparency website

* Note: There may be new information on the Globe's ofificial account. That information will be added.