Wednesday, May 28, 2003
Journalism as a joke: The New York Times has struck another blow to journalistic ideals with the latest revelation that Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg did what Slate's Jack Shafer is appropriately calling the "Dateline Toe-Touch."
In at least one instance, Bragg relied almost completely on the reporting of his own personal intern, J. Wes Yoder. Yoder spent four days in Apalachicola, Fla., interviewing the people who were the basis of the story. Bragg took Yoder's notes and wrote what was apparently an excellent piece.
Bragg freely admits he did little firsthand reporting for the June 2002 story about Florida oystermen that prompted an editor's note last week. That note said credit should have been shared with freelancer J. Wes Yoder, who was hired by Bragg as a volunteer assistant and spent four days in the town of Apalachicola. "I went and got the dateline," Bragg said. "The reporting was done -- there was no reason to linger."
If this is accepted policy at the Times, then there's large, serious institutional problems there. Bragg's nonchalance in putting his name atop a piece that he admittedly didn't report is troubling. From a journalistic standpoint, it appears all Bragg did is some polishing and line editing of Yoder's work.
When I worked at The Daily World in Aberdeen, Wash., I can remember helping a summer intern we had with a story about a local kid who was undergoing treatment for cancer. The community had rallied around this kid, holding fund-raisers to I spent about 45 minutes to an hour, on deadline polishing the story. Just minutes before deadline, we received word that the child had died. I watched in awe as the editor, John Hughes, took what the intern and I had worked on, rewrote it and made it about 50,000 times better.
Neither my name, nor Hughes' appeared on the final piece. The intern had been on the story for weeks. The intern had spent much of the previous day with the family in a Seattle hospital as they waited anxiously. She did the reporting, her name -- and only her name -- was atop the piece.
Shafer's analysis reflects many of my concerns when it comes to what appears to be a casual disregard for journalistic standards at the Times. While Bragg's sins are not on par with those of the disgraced Jayson Blair, if Bragg's methods are widespread in that newsroom, it's no wonder that Blair might get the wrong idea of how journalism should be practiced.
If you do the reporting, your name is atop the piece. If you do the editing, your name isn't. That's the way it is, pure and simple.
The Times' explanation is lame. The Times says the "article should have carried Mr. Yoder's byline with Mr. Bragg's."
The article should've carried only Yoder's byline -- and only his byline.
I can tell you that it doesn't work this way at the San Diego Union-Tribune -- or most other papers.
The Times has some serious institutional problems. It doesn't appear that they are up to handling them and that editor's note is Exhibit A.