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.

Rick Bragg farms it out
Rick Bragg farms it out

An editor's note in today's New York Times gently chastises Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg for what would be a firing offense at many newspapers, especially in the post-Jayson Blair era. On June 15, 2002, the Times ran a Page One article datelined Apalachicola, Fla., about the oystermen of the Gulf Coast. The byline credit went to Bragg, but that was wrong, the Times note explains. "[W]hile Mr. Bragg indeed visited Apalachicola briefly and wrote the article, the interviewing and reporting on the scene were done by a freelance journalist, J. Wes Yoder."

Visiting a scene just long enough to claim a dateline for an article based on somebody else's uncredited reporting—let's call it a "dateline toe-touch"—may not be as egregious as writing stories datelined Palestine, W.Va., without leaving your Brooklyn apartment, as Jayson Blair did. But it's dishonest for a writer like Bragg—who prides himself in brushing literary lacquer to the down-home details he harvests—to publish under his byline sights, sounds, and scenes collected by somebody else. Bragg's offense undercuts both his reputation and the Times'. And it calls into question whether Bragg has availed himself of this shortcut methodology before.

Yoder, who now works at Alabama's Anniston Star, says he worked during the summer of 2002 as an intern for Bragg on about 15 stories. Yoder says he received no pay, but Bragg covered his rent in a New Orleans sublet and covered hotel, gas, and meal expenses whenever Yoder worked on a story that required him to travel. (What reporter wouldn't spring for that deal if his bosses approved!) According to Yoder, a Times attorney and a news administration employee talked with him recently for 15 to 30 minutes while investigating the story's provenance. 

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In a telephone interview, Yoder says that he stayed in the Apalachicola area four nights in order to report the piece and that he interviewed all of the oystermen and -women in the story. Bragg visited briefly one night and interviewed none of them, says Yoder.

The Apalachicola story abounds with Braggian narrative detail, describing in its lede the meanderings of an oyster boat over the bay's oyster beds. 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."

Every newspaper employs wordsmiths in the newsroom to rewrite breaking news collected by reporters in the field. The legendary Robert D. McFadden excelled in this capacity at the Times. But the rewrite guy never pretends to be at the scene of the story, as Bragg did, and most newspapers acknowledge at a story's close which correspondents collected news for the team effort.

But nobody at the Times is pretending that that's what Bragg was up to with the Apalachicola article. It's unlikely (though possible) that such precise notes could have been written by Yoder, a December 2001 graduate of Auburn University, and transferred whole-cloth to Bragg. (If that were the case, Yoder would deserve the sole byline, if not Bragg's job.) More plausibly, the well-traveled Bragg conjured the Apalachicolan scenes and moods based on the tyro's notes and on his knowledge of the area. But we don't know. Bragg did not respond to a phone message requesting an interview for this column.

The editor's note bends Times policy in stating the article "should have" carried Yoder's byline in addition to Bragg's. Given the facts, I can't imagine how the Times could possibly justify giving Yoder a byline. Times spokesperson Catherine J. Mathis explains that a stringer can earn a byline "in the exceptional cases of unusual enterprise or unusual writing style"—but there's nothing enterprising about the Apalachicola story, and the writing appears to be pure Bragg. Yoder's style, illustrated in this Anniston Starpiece, appears to be workmanlike but not unusual. Also, Mathis states, it's not Times policy to use unpaid free-lancers, so why didn't the editor's note rap Bragg's knuckles for that, too?

The Times has filed no corrections for the Apalachicola piece, but Bragg's unorthodox use of uncredited reporters may explain the number of corrections the Times has appended to other Bragg stories over the years. Every reporter makes mistakes, but Bragg's gargantuan goofs defy explanation—often making you wonder if he even visited the scene of his own story. Take this 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:

An article on June 1 about a small-town Alabama publishing couple who exposed corruption by a county sheriff misstated the sentence received by the sheriff, Roger Davis of Marengo County, for extortion. It was 27 months in prison, not 27 years, and is to be served concurrently with another 27-month sentence, for soliciting a bribe and failure to pay state income taxes.

The article also misstated the age of the editor and publisher, Goodloe Sutton of the weekly Democrat-Reporter in Linden. He is 59, not in his late 40's.

In addition, the article referred imprecisely to the timing of a Democrat-Reporter article about Sheriff Davis's use of county money for an all-terrain vehicle for his daughter. That article was published after the sheriff had repaid the money, not before.

The Times article also misstated the process by which the sheriff took money from the county mental health center. He had the center write a check to him for each mental patient who was transported by sheriff's deputies; he was not cashing checks that had been intended for the center.

The article also misstated the circulation of The Democrat-Reporter. It is 7,125, not 6,000.

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.

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.

******

According to the editor's note, the Times published its correction in "response to a reader's recent letter questioning where the reporting took place." Who are you, mystery reader? Sign in at pressbox@hotmail.com, where I read all of my mail.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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