May 29, 2003

WELL, I’VE BEEN GONE but Andrew Sullivan has been all over the Rick Bragg story. He thinks that Bragg deserved it — but that so does the Times. On the other hand, former Times stringer Rod Dreher thinks Bragg’s getting a raw deal. And Kaus has more:

[I]t seems clear that a) the NYT policy is a lot more permissive than readers ever knew; b) the NYT rules are unclear, which makes them easy to stretch; and c) the paper is less willing to give credit (which would have the effect of discouraging stringer abuse) than other news organizations.

Read the whole thing(s). Meanwhile Cathy Seipp is focusing on Bob Scheer. At least there’s some evidence that the L.A. Times is beginning to notice that it has a reputation for liberal bias.

UPDATE: More support for Bragg’s claim that everybody does it at the Times — or at least that a lot of people do:

Lisa Suhay, a Times freelance writer who says her work on one article was badly distorted by Blair, maintained that Bragg “is being punished for what I, as a freelancer, have seen in four years as common practice.

“I have covered anthrax, plane crashes, roller-coaster disasters, interviewed the family of a local POW — all high-profile stories, with no credit. . . . It was simply understood that I got paid to be invisible, a nonentity, entrusted to go to market to get the choicest bits for the dish being prepared.”

Milton Allimadi, a Times metro stringer for two years in the mid-1990s, said he routinely filed crime stories that were “barely touched” by editors and reporters but never got a byline. “I often wondered how readers I had interviewed must have been surprised the next day. While interviewing them I identified myself as Milton Allimadi, and the next day the byline would be totally different,” he said.

Times reporters and editors, meanwhile, respond that they always do a great job. Now, I’m not even sure that this reliance on stringers is unethical (see my earlier post on this) but the Times has already decided that it is, by suspending Bragg, who has now quit. But the press coverage of this is interesting, because it seems to me that journalists are far more willing to take the word of Times employees and flacks that things are fine there than they would be if they were hearing similar assurances from, say, Enron. Those kinds of assurances are always reported with a hint of a sneer. What’s the difference? That these are journalists, perhaps their friends and classmates, but at least their fellow professionals? Fine. But why should the rest of us care?

Meanwhile it’s interesting to see that people at other newspapers are taking note of the kind of stuff that really hurts their credibility:

Kann also cited “many potential misdemeanors well short of the crimes of plagiarism and fabrication. . . . I am thinking here of the anonymous negative quote questioning someone’s character; the unreturnable post-office-closing phone call that permits a publication to say ‘unavailable for comment’; the closed mind to an inconvenient new fact that doesn’t fit a story line; the loaded adjective where no adjective is needed; the analysis that edges across the line to personal opinion.”

Yep. Some of that stuff is okay in punditry, but not news reporting. And what’s really hurting media credibility is the sense that there’s not much of a difference anymore.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader suggests that this passage from the Post piece quoted above is pretty damning:

Such issues rarely surface in television, a more collaborative enterprise where producers and researchers often conduct key interviews and accumulate footage before the big-name correspondent arrives for a shoot. In 1998, when Peter Arnett, then a CNN reporter, narrated a documentary charging that U.S. forces used nerve gas during the Vietnam War, he was able to distance himself when the story had to be retracted, saying he had “contributed not one comma” to the piece.

“See, I just play a journalist on TV.” Uh huh.