Rick Bragg's lousy alibi.

Rick Bragg's lousy alibi.

Rick Bragg's lousy alibi.

Media criticism.
May 27 2003 7:27 PM

Rick Bragg's Lousy Alibi

The suspended New York Times reporter insists—wrongly—that everybody does it.

On Friday, New York Times reporter Rick Bragg insisted to the Columbia Journalism Review he'd done nothing wrong in claiming 1) the byline for a story that an unpaid free-lancer had reported for him and 2) the dateline "Apalachicola, Fla.," after visiting the town only briefly. (See "Rick Bragg's 'Dateline Toe-Touch.' ")

"I wouldn't have done anything different," Bragg tells CJR.

Bragg reiterates that position to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz again today—as he pre-announces his resignation from the New York Times. He tells Kurtz:

I have dictated stories from an airport after writing the story out in longhand on the plane that I got from phone interviews and then was applauded by editors for "working magic." … Those things are common at the paper. Most national correspondents will tell you they rely on stringers and researchers and interns and clerks and news assistants.

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Bragg continues his defense, saying Times stringers and interns "should get more credit for what they do," but in "taking feeds" from such assistants, "I have never even thought of whether or not that is proper. Maybe there is something missing in me. ..."

I will take it from a stringer. I will take it from an intern. I will take it from a news assistant. If a clerk does an interview for me, I will use it. I'm going to send people to sit in for me if I don't have time to be there. It is not unusual to send someone to conduct an interview you don't have time to conduct. It's what we do.

In his pique and all his declarations of innocence, Bragg would like readers to believe he is the victim of the post-Blair "poisonous atmosphere" that's settled over the Times. The real issue isn't Rick Bragg's conduct, he asserts; it's the backroom politics of the New York Times, and he's just the pawn in that elaborate struggle.

Everyone who ever wanted to get even for a slight or unpleasantry or act out their jealousy now has their chance, and it will continue. … What I don't understand is the callousness of some people who would try to use this situation to settle their political squabbles. It is shameful that some people are using it in a power grab at the newspaper. It's just about the saddest thing I've ever seen.

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Bragg maintains that his editors were "fully aware" of his Apalachicola methodology, citing the approved techniques he used in reporting from the Oklahoma City bombings. Details for those stories came from "a stack four feet high" of clips from the Oklahoman, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and other papers. "From each one of the stories I took a piece of the pain he had caused people," Bragg tells the Post. "We backed it up with interviews. That's what we're supposed to do. We gather the string that's out there."

Before we allow Bragg to blame his troubles on Times internal politics or let him imply that the Times knew what he was up to and that everybody does what he does, let's review Times policies on datelines and bylines. Let's also determine which of those policies Bragg violated. Via e-mail, Times spokeswoman Catherine J. Mathis takes her best shot at sorting it all out for you.

Mathis on the Times'official dateline and byline policy:

A dateline guarantees that a reporter (the bylined one, if there is a byline) was at the specified place on the date given, and provided the bulk of the information, in the form of copy or, when necessary, of notes used faithfully in a rewrite. Especially in a story so vivid in reconstructing sights and sounds, readers logically infer that the bylined correspondent has heard the voices and experienced the scenes. This is why we believe the story from Apalachicola in June 2002 required a correction.

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Mathis on Bragg's violation:

Mr. Bragg had traveled to Florida and had set out to write a much broader story about the impact of development on the rivers that feed the bay off the Florida Panhandle. He was working out of one town in Florida. He had asked a freelancer to gather some information about the impact of development on the oyster business in another town, Apalachicola, which is about 90 minutes away. Mr. Bragg changed the approach of the story to focus on the impact of development on the oyster business based on the information and reporting that the freelancer brought to him. (Mr. Bragg did visit Apalachicola briefly.) Given the amount of reporting the freelancer did, he should have also had a byline on the story.

Mathis won't answer the question of whether the free-lancer in question, J. Wes Yoder, could have possibly qualified for a byline had Bragg informed his bosses about Yoder's participation. "It's not our policy to employ unpaid freelancers," is the best Mathis will do. That said, Bragg appears to be guilty of three counts of editorial deceit in hiring an unpaid, undisclosed, and unauthorized helper—essentially subcontracting his work to others without his bosses' consent. More clarity from the Times on when, where, and how stringers are used would produce much needed enlightenment—for both its reporters and readers.

Mathis on who doles out credit:

The editors in the respective departments determine whether or not freelance journalists receive byline credit subject to the guidelines noted above.

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This policy point prompts the question, what did Bragg's editors know about his use of stringers? If they knew he was using Yoder throughout the summer of 2002—Yoder broke bread with Bragg and Executive Editor Howell Raines in Birmingham, Ala.,—the failure was partly theirs, and they should say so. If Times editors knew what Bragg was up to, did they cut him slack because of his close friendship with Raines? The internal committee headed by Times Assistant Managing Editor Allan Siegal, assigned to review Times newsroom practices in the wake of the Jayson Blair affair, will also examine the paper's byline and dateline practices.

There's no question that Bragg's Apalachicola methodology violates Times policy, and his conduct there differs radically from his work in Oklahoma City. Bragg spent real time in OK City, deserving the dateline; he claims he fortified the information he sifted from the newspaper clips with independent interviews. Yes, reporters everywhere do what he did in OK City. But no, they don't—and shouldn't—do what he did in Apalachicola.

In mounting his inept "everybody does it" self-defense, Bragg doesn't cite another Times case remotely comparable to that of Apalachicola. Although other Times stringers, interns, and staffers have alleged cases in which reporting for the Times was improperly credited, none has alleged to me a provable violation as dramatic as Bragg's. In general, it's a point of pride for newspaper reporters not to slough the reporting off on assistants.

Today's Wall Street Journal recounts how an intern—of the paid variety—collected almost all of the courtroom quotations for Bragg-bylined stories about a Miami trial. While you can question the ethics of sending a paid intern—whom you don't credit—to stake out a courtroom while you do additional reporting and writing from the local Miami office, this, too, is entirely different from visiting Apalachicola for a couple of hours solely to claim the dateline and foster the illusion that you'd seen the story yourself.

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The Apalachicola text reveals how Bragg infused the piece with its fraudulent sense of immediacy. He repeatedly invokes the word "here" to imply an intimacy with his subjects and the environs, even though he didn't do any of the interviews with the oystermen. [Emphasis added.]

More and more, life here feels temporary. …

As in any society, there are layers here. …

A man has to get very drunk not to think about the future here. …

While environmentalists call the bay pristine, people who have lived here the longest say change has long since come. …

The people have a toughness in them here. …

Obviously, the journalistic profession should better codify 1) exactly how much work a stringer must do before earning a byline credit and 2) how many minutes a reporter need occupy the city limits of his dateline in order to claim it. But the lack of a hard-and-fast standard doesn't mean I don't know journalistic scamming when I see it. Reconstituting a "you are there" story from somebody else's notes and conducting a touch-and-go landing to claim the dateline violates not only Times policy, but any sober person's elemental sense of intellectual honesty.

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Bragg correspondence read here: pressbox@hotmail.com.