May 27, 2003

THIS JACK SHAFER STORY on Rick Bragg misses some notes, I think. First, despite the advertisement in the title, Shafer’s story doesn’t, in fact, refute Bragg’s claim that “everybody does it.” (Of course — though it’s not disclosed — the titles to pieces aren’t usually written by the authors, so that might be Shafer’s fault. But would the average reader know that?) Shafer rather uncritically accepts a New York Times spokeswoman’s statement that seems to suggest — but that doesn’t actually say — that Bragg’s behavior was unusual for the Times. He doesn’t, and the Times doesn’t, respond to Bragg’s claim that his editors encouraged him to parachute into places just long enough to get a dateline for a story that was really written elsewhere. He also doesn’t fully address the treatment of that issue in this Wall Street Journal story, even though he mentions the story on other points. But the WSJ story includes this statement:

The Times says nonstaff journalists are often used to conduct interviews, provide research assistance or help stake out the scene of news events, especially on tight deadlines, but don’t receive bylines when their contribution is routine. They may receive one “when their pieces reflect unusual enterprise or unusual writing style,” according to a written statement provided by the Times.

Indeed, some Times staffers expressed surprise at Mr. Bragg’s suspension because using material from stringers and assistants without giving credit is common practice at the paper, owned by New York Times Co.

Shafer also suggests that Bragg was doing something tricky by using Wes Yoder as a stringer, but again, the WSJ story seems to suggest that Howell Raines must have been aware of this practice, which would devastate any case that Bragg was putting one over on his bosses. Here’s the key passage:

Indeed, when Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, an Alabama native, visited Birmingham to watch the trial, Mr. Yoder says he sat with the Times’ top editor in the courtroom and they spoke at length. “It wasn’t like Rick was hiding anything from Howell, or anyone else at the Times,” Mr. Yoder says. Mr. Raines went to dinner at least once with Mr. Bragg and Mr. Yoder, Mr. Yoder says.

It’s not open-and-shut, but it’s awfully damned suggestive. Could these guys have really had dinner, talked shop (inevitably) and not parted with Howell Raines knowing what was going on? It seems doubtful, and it’s hard to imagine a journalist taking the word of a flack for any other corporation under these circumstances, but that’s what Shafer’s doing when he concludes that Bragg was guilty of “deceit” by using Yoder on the story.

Shafer’s on his strongest ground when he suggests that the “you are there” tone of the Apalachicola story is deceptive in the sense that it gives the impression that Bragg was there a lot more than he really was. This is pretty strong — but if it’s true, then as Jeff Jarvis points out, every TV reporter is committing unethical journalism by producing reports that give an entirely false impression of how much original reporting he or she is doing, and of what happens when and where. (Jonah Goldberg says the same thing).

It seems to me that there are two questions here: what’s fair to the stringers, and what’s fair to the readers. Where the stringers are concerned, I think it’s all a question of contract and expectations. If they’re promised a byline they should get one. If they’re not, then they’re not entitled to one. And if there’s some widespread journalistic norm (as there is, I believe, among comedy writers where everyone in the room when a joke is written gets credit) that everyone involved gets a credit, then apparently it’s not that widespread. And it’s very notable that Yoder isn’t the one complaining here. In fact, he’s defending Bragg.

From the reader’s standpoint it’s trickier: What do readers want to know? What do they care about? Jarvis again: “My own mother used to tell me about stories she’d just read in the Chicago Tribune and I used to have to say, ‘Yeah, Ma, I know, I wrote that.’ Reporters’ own mothers don’t notice their bylines.” Readers do want to know whether they can trust the reporting. Bylines can be a proxy for trust — or distrust, when it’s, say, Robert Fisk — but usually only insiders care. The average reader, wisely or foolishly, almost certainly pays more attention to the institutional imprimatur than to the reporter’s name. I would certainly favor adding individual accountability, and thus bringing the Times up to the standards of weblogs, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s ethically required.

Which returns to the original question: What, exactly, did Rick Bragg do that was so much worse than what other reporters at the Times do that it justifies a suspension? Shafer’s piece doesn’t answer that, beyond making this unsupported general statement:

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.

“None has alleged to me.” “In general, it’s a point of pride.” That’s not very strong stuff, really. It just raises more questions.

It’s possible, of course, that — despite the Wall Street Journal report and the emails I got here over the weekend — these practices aren’t really widespread at the Times. If Shafer’s piece had demonstrated that, then it would have provided at least a partial answer to the question of what Bragg did wrong. But Shafer’s piece doesn’t demonstrate that so much as it simply asserts it.

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