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May 24, 2003

RICK BRAGG HAS BEEN SUSPENDED from the New York Times. Based on the email I've been getting (see below) a lot of other journalists ought to be nervous, if this is the standard now.

Call me a cynic [You're a cynic! -- Ed.] but this smells like Howell Raines trying to change the subject. I had a reader email me back when the Blair matter broke, predicting that a white guy would be disciplined at the Times within a couple of weeks. I didn't run the email because it seemed too cynical. But -- whoever sent that one, well, you were right. [LATER: He wrote back in -- so now I can say "Advantage: Lee Goldston!"].

UPDATE: A reader says I'm wrong:

You're wrong about the Times. This isn't about reporters suddenly being held to a higher standard; it's about Howell's favorites FINALLY being busted for their mistakes. The new revelations make life much worse, not better, for Howell. And you can bet that angry Times newsroom staffers are behind the revelations. This is a purge and Howell might be the last one out the door.

Reader Michael Gebert smells something, too:

Yes, and think how perfect Bragg is for this ceremonial whipping‹ he's practically Raines¹ doppelganger, culturally, which will make it seem like Raines is sparing no one‹ yet as every article points out, he earned his fame under Joseph Lelyveld, not Raines, so he doesn¹t reinforce the Raines-favoritism story. Plus he has a strong enough literary reputation that he can easily survive a few months in the wilderness. If it walks like a setup and talks like a setup...

Interesting difference in perspective. Steve Verdon is even more cynical. I think the charges of racism are a bit over the top, though. And Craig Henry says this doesn't come close to the Blair scandal.

UPDATE: Kaus has much more on this. It does seem that there's a systemic problem with bylines at the Times. So what's the big deal about Bragg? Is there more to come? Stay tuned. Meanwhile I love this bit from Kaus:

It turns out we weren't reading the reporting of the famous, cream-of-the-profession Times employees, but the reporting of unidentified "stringers" we've never heard of. ... Conventional journalists sometimes sneer at blogs because there's no way for a reader to know whether what a random, unknown person says on his Web site is true. But it sounds as if the Times is not so different from a blog after all--what you are reading is really the work of random, unknown "legs" and stringers. ...

Of course, in other ways the Times and the typical blog are very different forms of journalism. One obsessively reflects the personal biases, enthusiasms and grudges of a single individual. The other is just an online diary! ...

All I can say is, "indeed." Meanwhile, via MediaMinded, here's a piece on nepotism in high end media, and here's a sensible quote from William McGowan, author of Coloring the News:

I don’t think the Blair case should impose a stigma on all minority journalists. It shouldn’t invalidate all diversity efforts either, especially efforts aimed at casting a wide net, opening doors to talented people, all the while maintaining standards as you are doing so. But I do think you’d be journalistically at fault if you didn’t acknowledge where diversity and race was a factor in the Blair case and the Times institutional response to it.

Well, I think that's right. I was initially skeptical (and even more so here) of claims that the Blair scandal was about affirmative action. And in a way I still am -- this isn't a "classic" affirmative action case of somebody unqualified who was hired because he was black. Everybody seems to agree that if Blair weren't some sort of lying weasel he'd be capable of good reporting. Instead, Blair's case seems to have been one in which most authority figures were unwilling to respond to obvious problems with a black reporter for fear of being called racist, which in the diversity-seminar culture of the Times might be a career-ender. The bad thing about the Times' diversity culture, now well-documented by Kaus, Sullivan, et al., is that when you have things like the Bragg case it's hard to know whether they're justified or whether they represent some sort of politico-racial balancing. And that's the trouble with diversity culture in general: it makes everything, and everyone, suspect. Instead of minimizing racism, it makes every single decision racially charged. And by encouraging bogus charges of racism, it ultimately makes those charges meaningless: the first refuge of scoundrels rather than items of moral substance.

ANOTHER UPDATE: The emailers seem to have it right the Wall Street Journal reports that the practice of using uncredited stringers is so common that other people at the Times wonder why Bragg is in trouble.