Rick Bragg's "dateline toe-touch."

Media criticism.
May 23 2003 5:56 PM

Rick Bragg's "Dateline Toe-Touch"

A New York Times writer gets gets caught cutting corners.

(Continued from Page 1)

Or this Page One March 14, 2002, Bragg story about a town that allegedly banned Satan:

A front-page article on March 14 reported on a proclamation by the mayor of Inglis, Fla., population 1,400, banning Satan from the town. The mayor, Carolyn Risher, had prayers encased in posts at the entrances to the town. The article said that while the proclamation was signed by the town clerk and stamped with the official seal, other town officials had said the mayor was speaking only for herself.

The article should have added that those officials, members of Inglis's town commission, took that position in late January after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the city. The commission ordered the mayor to reimburse the town for the cost of issuing the proclamation and had the posts removed from public property. Officials of the civil liberties union in Florida brought the later developments to The Times's attention in a letter to the editor published on Thursday.

Such errors cry out for public pillory—or at the very least careful policing by editors. Instead, Bragg continued to live his enchanted life at the Times, which he joined in 1994. Prior to the Times, he worked at two newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times and the Birmingham News, where fellow Southerner and friend Times Executive Editor Howell Raines once toiled. According to The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, Raines so admires Bragg's work that following 9/11, he pulled Bragg off a book tour and told foreign editor Roger Cohen to send him overseas, "which Cohen did reluctantly," Auletta writes.

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Raines-haters would love to learn that Bragg's work was exempted from editorial scrutiny because of his friendship with the boss. But Raines did not take over the Times until September 2001, which would leave ample blame to fall on Joseph Lelyveld, the Times' former executive editor, if it were revealed that Bragg cut similar journalistic corners during the earlier regime.

Bragg's transgressions deserve greater punishment than the meek editor's note, but Times spokesperson Catherine J. Mathis wouldn't comment on what, if any, penance he might pay: The company does not comment publicly on personnel matters. But Bragg's sin is not a simple matter of failing to give credit, as the editor's note implies. Bylines and datelines state unequivocally that the reporter was there, saw what he saw, and reported it faithfully, unless an "additional reporting" squib accompanies the story. In bylining a story that he did not witness, and writing vivid descriptions of things he did not see, Bragg comes perilously close to the techniques of Jayson Blair.

For Rick Bragg to bend the rules to accommodate his schedule or ego is, of course, unacceptable. While his trespasses shouldn't give Times-bashers license to conduct a witch hunt, Times readers have every right to expect the newspaper to review Bragg's other stories for faithfulness to journalistic standards and to cooperate with other publications and readers who might conduct their own reviews.

Addendum, 6:49 p.m.: Columbia Journalism Review reports Bragg's two-week suspension and his unrepentant explanation in the wake of the byline brouhaha. Geoffrey Gray writes:

In an interview with CJR on Wednesday, Bragg said that while Yoder was in Apalachicola, he was in the resort town of Fort Walton Beach, only an hour or so away, doing additional reporting. To justify the dateline for the story, Bragg drove into Apalachicola for a couple of hours, returned to his hotel in Fort Walton, and went over story notes with [J. Wes] Yoder. Two days later, they both returned to New Orleans, where Bragg lives, and where he typed up the story. "I wouldn't have done anything different," said Bragg. "J. Wes did great work and we came out with a great story."

This doesn't wash, either. Every reporter wishes he could sun himself in a resort town for four days while an intern does the heavy lifting an hour away. If Bragg truly thinks what he did was acceptable, why did he even bother toe-touching Apalachicola for his byline? Why not dateline it Fort Walton Beach? The simple answer is that such an honest dateline would give the accurate impression that author Bragg hadn't spent any time with the primary subjects of his story—the blue-collar oystermen of Apalachicola Bay—thereby undermining the truth of the piece.

Would Bragg really not "have done anything different" if he had it to do over again, as he brazenly attests here? I doubt it, and I'll bet Howell Raines doubts it, too. Bragg filed a fraudulent dateline, composed a piece in his own literary voice about things he didn't see, and violated several Times policies about byline integrity.

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