Saturday, May 24, 2003

Sparing no expense to inform my readers, I've done a little journalistic legwork to investigate the case of Rick Bragg. Bragg is a New York Times writer who apparently had a habit of getting other people to do his reporting for him, rewriting it with lots of style and local color, and then getting it published under his own name. He has just been suspended for two weeks for having published a long, elegant feature story on oyster fishermen in Apalachicola, Fla.--despite having barely set foot in the place--that relied largely on the notes of an uncredited, unpaid intern named J. Wes Yoder. Knowledgeable journalists suspect that this case is only the tip of the iceberg for Bragg--and the Times.

From his small but comfortable office in Washington, DC, veteran journalist and Slate deputy editor Jack Shafer sips on a coffee and follows the Bragg story mainly via the Internet on his PC. Shafer is one of those who does not believe the Apalachicola case to be an isolated one. "Bragg's unorthodox use of uncredited reporters may explain the number of corrections the Times has appended to other Bragg stories over the years," he says, between sips. He pulls up on the screen a "hilarious extended correction for Bragg's June 1, 1998, story about a small Alabama newspaper's crusade against corruption, in which he appears to have gotten more facts wrong than right." A few keystrokes, and another, similarly odd list of errata appears, this time, says Shafer, regarding "Page One March 14, 2002, Bragg story about a town that allegedly banned Satan." "Every newspaper employs wordsmiths in the newsroom to rewrite breaking news collected by reporters in the field," he points out. "But the rewrite guy never pretends to be at the scene of the story, as Bragg did."

On the other hand, even Shafer admits that Bragg's use of an uncredited stringer is neither unusual nor against Times policy. "Given the facts, I can't imagine how the Times could possibly justify giving Yoder a byline," says Shafer, shrugging. And Yoder himself, speaking from his small, tidy desk at the modest but dignified newsroom of his current employer, The Anniston (Ala.) Star, expresses no resentment. "This is what stringers do, the legwork," he says, munching on his lunch, a takeout sandwich. "I did most of the reporting and Rick wrote it. Nothing’s inaccurate. Rick tried to bring the piece alive, to take the reader there, and he did a darn good job of it."

Meanwhile, Bragg, typing on his laptop computer in an airport departure lounge, waiting for his jam-packed plane to board, dismisses all the criticism as unjustified. "I wouldn’t have done anything different," says Bragg. "J. Wes did great work and we came out with a great story." And he has a point. Media maven Howard Kurtz, grabbing a break between takes of his CNN media analysis show, "Reliable Sources", argues that Bragg is an accidental victim of the recent Jayson Blair controversy. "At another time, Bragg's feature about struggling oystermen on the Gulf Coast would have drawn little notice," he says, before submitting to another round of attention from a quietly efficent makeup artist.

Perhaps the best defense of Bragg's practice, in fact, is his own article. Here's Shafer's description: "The Apalachicola story abounds with Braggian narrative detail....Oysterman 'Bobby Varnes prods the sandy bottom with a worn wooden pole, rhythmically stabbing at the soft sand as the boat idles along, waiting for the pole to strike a hard, brittle shell.' White egrets 'slip like paper airplanes just overhead' and mullet 'belly-flop with a sharp clap into steel-gray water.'" Surely anyone who reads such ornate, impressionistic prose, and then expects it to embody careful, objective reporting, deserves to be equally misled by its assigned byline.

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