By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Salon gets it wrong on Barnicle and Whitey

Mike Barnicle

It was a sensational accusation, and it appeared to be backed up with the man’s own words. On Thursday, Salon posted a piece claiming that Mike Barnicle wrote a column in the Boston Globe in 1991 defending the notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger against charges that he’d made a $14 million lottery winner an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The article, by Steve Kornacki, has gotten wide distribution, and is seemingly irrefutable. And Barnicle’s track record of plagiarism, fabrication and toadying to the old Irish-American political order in Boston make him an easy target. (Note: Kornacki has written a retraction. See below.)

But this particular allegation isn’t true. I looked it up.

What’s given the Salon piece such legs is that Barnicle’s column, published on Aug. 1, 1991, is not on the open Web — rather, it’s in the Globe’s paid archives. (You can find it here. It’s $4.95 unless you’re a Globe customer.) What made me want to look it up were the excerpts Kornacki quoted, which struck me as florid and over-the-top even for a hack like Barnicle. I’m not going to requote what Kornacki found — you can do that yourself. But I do want to quote some of the stuff that Kornacki left out. Here’s a lengthy section in which Barnicle writes about the organized-crime wars in which Bulger was involved:

The myth took root decades ago after Jimmy returned home from away games in Atlanta, Alcatraz and Leavenworth, where he earned his federal letter sweater. Then, Southie was sort of dominated by nickel and dime hoodlums claiming to be part of the Mullen Gang. This was the only gang in America that took its name from a street sign. They were supposed to be bad but, bottom line, they were stupid and Whitey is not.

He aligned himself with a larger outfit, many of whose members were of Mediterranean extraction and thus easily tricked by glib Irish wit. His associates loved to talk with their mouths full of linguine and clam sauce and, in between twirling noodles onto spoons, they talked themselves into jail or the trunks of Lincoln Town cars.

Some Irish were wounded, too. Among them was a Bulger acquaintance, Buddy Roache, the police commissioner’s brother, who got shot in the spine and must now rely on a wheelchair for movement. Then, there was the commissioner’s former brother-in-law, Mickey Dwyer, who got in a fight with the late Donald Killeen, one of Whitey’s executive vice presidents before they changed the title to executed vice president. Donny bit Mickey’s nose off in a fight but, out of friendship, called a cab after the beef and had the nose sent to the hospital. The cabbie got a tip, but the surgical procedure failed and to this day Mickey sounds like a cold front out of Canada.

There was Billy O’Sullivan of Savin Hill, who did not know enough to stay within his own zip code. Billy had more hits to his credit than Elvis but he got greedy. They found his car in Charlestown with Billy’s shoes alongside the spare tire. And that’s all they ever found.

Louie Litoff was another part-time member of Jimmy Bulger’s cabinet, a bookmaker with a hundred different jogging outfits. On his last run around the block, Louie stepped on Red Assad’s foot outside the Waltham Street Cafe. It’s the little things that are important and soon Louie had a new nickname and a new address. He went out being called, “Bowling Ball Head” due to the three bullet holes in the back of his skull, and he now gets his mail at Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

Believe me, it’s not all ice cream and sweet dreams for Jimmy Bulger. Someone is always after his behind or his job. He’s always the object of some hostile takeover.

This is pure satire — really bad satire, as only Barnicle could write it. But you can clearly see that Barnicle was acknowledging Bulger’s involvement in murder and mayhem. Does Kornacki really think Barnicle would condone such actions?

Now, there is no question that Barnicle was and is close to Bill Bulger, the former Massachusetts Senate president, and has been an unconscionable apologist for former FBI agent John Connolly, now serving a prison term for his corrupt dealings with Bulger. In fact, here’s an excerpt of an article I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in 1998, a week before the Globe got rid of Barnicle for fabrication and plagiarism:

[W]hen it comes to the other Bulger, Whitey, Barnicle crosses the line from irresponsibility into journalistic corruption. Barnicle has consistently, and against all reason, defended the deal FBI agent John Connolly made with Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, letting them sell drugs, terrorize their enemies, and even kill in return for intelligence on La Cosa Nostra.

Barnicle’s August 4 effort … was quintessential Barnicle. He went after John Martorano, a killer who’s decided to cooperate with the FBI in its quest to track down the elusive Bulger. Barnicle quoted Eddie Walsh, “an honest cop,” as saying Martorano “killed an awful lot of black people,” including three women at a Roxbury club in the 1960s. “If he gets immunity,” Walsh, who’s now retired, told Barnicle, “they ought to put the judge in jail.”

The column caused an immediate uproar, because sources inside the Globe — not to mention Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis — questioned how there could have been an unsolved triple murder that no one could remember. As it turned out, the murder had occurred, though Barnicle had some of the genders wrong (it was two men and one woman). But as Gelzinis reported in a devastating column on August 6, Barnicle failed to mention that “honest cop” Walsh is one of Connolly’s closest friends. And that Connolly had shared with Walsh information that could have saved the life of a bookie who was prepared to rat out Bulger, had Walsh chosen to do anything with said information. Leaving out such facts is not just bias on Barnicle’s part; it’s gross malpractice, and it’s inexplicable that the same Globe that could produce a Pulitzer-caliber Spotlight series on the FBI’s Bulger connection could at the same time tolerate such sleaze.

I suppose that, to some extent, satire is in the eye of the beholder. Any writer who attempts satire will be misunderstood by some of his readers. And yes, feel free to be offended that Barnicle, in the column cited by Salon, attempted to write a humorous piece about Whitey Bulger’s crimes and life of violence.

But don’t believe that Barnicle defended Whitey Bulger on that day. It’s just not true.

Update: If you follow the link to Kornacki’s piece now, you’ll see that he’s written a very gracious and thorough retraction. He’s a stand-up guy, and I’ll try to remember his example the next time I screw something up.

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  1. Stephen Stein

    If you’re not a Globe subscriber but you have a library card from one of the Minuteman Network libraries, you can access this article for free in the Minuteman’s Massachusetts Newsstand Database.

  2. Michael Pahre

    So… if I understand your argument correctly: you disagree with the assertion that Barnicle defended Whitey, but you argue strongly that Barnicle was irresponsible and committed “journalistic corruption” in his writings about Whitey.

    Which means that, in some manner, Barnicle succeeded in defending Whitey implicitly — although not explicitly — through his journalistically biased coverage of Whitey.

    A distinction without a difference?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: Good timing! Kornacki just posted a very gracious and thorough retraction.

  3. Hartley Pleshaw

    Dan, you seem to have expended a lot of time and research on what is essentially a moot point. As you readily acknowledge, Barnicle was a Bulger shill for virtually his entire career. If this particular piece was “satire,” then it wasn’t much different from the “straight” (if that word applies in Barnicle’s case) columns he wrote about the Bulgers; Salon can hardly be blamed for not seeing much of a difference. And many was the (non-satirical–non-INTENTIONALLY satirical, that is) Barnicle column that said, “The way things are going, soon they’re going to be accusing Jimmy Bulger of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping,” or some such phrase. Bottom line: if Barnicle was in the pocket for Billy Bulger and John Connolly, he was in the de facto pocket for Whitey

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Hartley: Barnicle is a shill for Bill Bulger and John Connolly, not Whitey Bulger. There is a difference, and it’s an important one.

  4. Chris Dowd

    This is simply weak. I grew up reading Barnicle- and believing him- and what he wanted me to believe – was that Whitey was some colorful rouge out of a James Cagney movie. He shilled for him. I can read. And your attempt to shine over this is insulting.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Chris: If you can read, then please read Steve Kornacki’s retraction, appended to his original Salon piece.

  5. Chris dowd

    Whatever- I know what barnacle did and I don’t care to play word parsing blog games.

  6. BP Myers

    Help me out here. Where is the satire?

    I see him making light of Whitey’s criminal background (“away games” and “letter sweater”) and making light of people wounded and killed in organized crime wars, and making unbelievably racist comments (“twirling linguini”) it’s hard to imagine anyone getting away with today.

    But I just don’t see the satire. Sorry.

  7. David Watson

    I’ve got to second Chris Dowd…all the fawning in the articles written about both Bulgers almost matches the relish with which Barnicle loved to refer to Whitey as,”Jimmy”…”Jimmy” this and “Jimmy” that…the adulation implied was sickening…but then,that’s what Barnicle and his fantasies all were.

  8. David Watson

    I should add,I was referring to the drivel and worship on Barnicle’s one time radio show.

  9. L.K. Collins

    Does anyone seriously think that the Bulger brothers careers were not intertwined in meaningful ways?

    That just makes Barnicle’s fawning that much more unacceptable.

  10. Rick Peterson

    People who think that Afghanistan is the most insular, violent place on the planet obviously didn’t spend any time in Southie or Charlestown during the last three decades of the 20th century. “Good old days” my foot.

  11. Hi Dan,

    FYI: Boston Public Library card holders can access Boston Globe archives for free. Most likely, other public library systems also have this access to newspaper archives.

  12. Mike Benedict

    Bob Ryan, who typically just spews the party line (that is, when he’s not advocating physical abuse for someone’s wife), wrote a piece today that, while not much of a column, was far less hacktastic than usual if only because he takes on Billy Bulger for the conniver that he is:

    “Whitey is bad.

    “Billy is worse.”

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: I’m a Ryan admirer, but he should plead insanity for that one.

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