RICK BRAGG

Glenn Reynolds, back from blogspot purgatory, delivers his take on the Rick Bragg story:

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?

Not much, it seems.

While I was initially shocked by the story–Rick Bragg is a hell of a writer and also a ‘Bama boy who made good–I have come to think that Bragg got caught up in the post-Jayson Blair hysteria at the Times. While my academic background makes me very intolerant of plagiarism, I don’t think this is what has happened here.

In academic circles, anything taken from a published source must be scrupulously footnoted. On the other hand, it is quite common for professors, especially at major research institutions, to make their graduate assistants do most of their research and number crunching, usually without credit. Generous profs will mention the grad student along with the “anonymous reviewers” and others who lent support in a note at the bottom of the first page. Only the most generous will actually give co-author credit to their graduate students.

In government circles, it is even worse. We all know presidents don’t write their own speeches. Many probably realize that op-eds bearing the bylines of cabinet secretaries are almost certainly not actually written by those officials. But the practice goes much further down the line. Anything with the byline of a military general or even a mid-level functionary was almost certainly written largely or entirely by someone else. The actual authors get “credit” only insomuch as they are 1) paid for the job and 2) rewarded in their performance reports for taking care of the boss. My guess is the same is true of things written by corporate executives.

As long as Rick Bragg did his own writing and wasn’t just taking stories written by others and putting his own touch on them, I’m not sure what the problem is. If the nature of being a stringer is that you do the grunt work and the star reporter gets the credit, so be it.

Update (11:30): James Lileks has a different take:

In a Carolina town, old ways are slowly ending

Sound familiar? Of course. In the world of New York Times feature stories, the old ways are always slowly ending, somewhere. A weathered old man is always pushing his boat out to sea for a diminished catch of mottled scrod; the lone practitioner of the milk-by-hand school is about to sell his cows, marking the total conquest of Wisconsin by the Teet-Skweez’r AutoMilker (a division of Haliburton.) Somewhere a farmer is running dirt through his hands, squinting up at the merciless sun; somewhere a small store that sold Truman a cherry coke when he was a young man prepares to shut its doors for good. These things make for excellent feature stories. I’ve written a few myself. In the late 80s the state of Minnesota required all gas stations to bring up the old underground tanks, an expensive proposition that drove a few corner stations out of business and convinced others to give up gas altogether and just run repair operations. (My transformation to the dark side was not yet complete, so I think I just concentrated on the effect of the rule rather than the obtuseness of the rule itself.) On a street corner in St. Paul, the old ways of selling gas are slowly ending.

Feature writing is the easiest gig in the business, if you ask me. Depending on the paper, bad writing can actually be encouraged and rewarded if it’s literary enough. You can shape the story as you please – as opposed to covering a fire as a news story, where you cannot use the fire as a jumping-off point for ruminations on the role of the Dalmatian in 19th century East Coast fire-company iconography. Not to say there aren’t good feature writers these days – our paper has Chuck Haga, who has a flawless touch for old Minnesota culture. And I ran across this piece in City Pages by Britt Robson – an account of a night at a roller rink that manages to include sex, gawky adolescence, middle-aged nostalgia, murder, and octogenarian wisdom in a compact piece. Nothing is ending in this piece; life is simply happening. I read that piece at 8:50 AM and it hung around all day.

When your profession is fraught with scandal, I suppose you dream of the writing style of writers whose work has been clouded with controversy. I don’t know much about Rick Bragg, except to say that the excerpt of his work I read in connection with the BYLINE SCANDAL must have had enough “old ways ending” moments to trigger that dream.

I will say this: when I was a feature writer, everything I wrote about, I saw. The idea that someone else would provide me with raw material to shape into a story from my desk would have seemed completely wrong, and would have made me feel like a fraud when anyone said they liked the piece. It’s not the writing alone that makes a good piece, it’s what you noticed, what your eye chose and your mind remembered. It’s all the stuff you leave out that makes your piece work, as much as the stuff you put in.

Yes, you can take some stringer’s notes and compose a story, but the difference between that an a piece you wrote from your own research is the difference between a Penthouse Forum letter and your recollection of your wedding night.

en that an a piece you wrote from your own research is the difference between a Penthouse Forum letter and your recollection of your wedding night.

(Hat tip to Bryan for mentioning the piece in his comments below. I don’t read Lileks as often as I should, since he never takes the trouble to ping weblogs.)

FILED UNDER: Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bryan says:

    I’ve obviously not breathed the same rarified air as Rick Bragg, but I will say this: I’ve never seen a reporter use a stringer the way NYT reporters use stringers. In most small to medium sized papers, stringers are used to cover stories when there’s not enough manpower in the office. And stringers are given some credit for whatever they put into a story. Like Lileks said, I never did that sort of thing when I was a feature writer.

    And journalism isn’t academia. Readers of newspapers expect that the person whose name appears at the top of the story did the writing, research and reporting. Well, at least they used to.

    I was personally shocked the first time I found out Molly Ivins had a couple of research assistants. Of course, it makes sense now. I always wondered how she was able to spend so much time looking up arcane facts and figures and still write her columns.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Interesting. I know I have often seen, at the bottom of a story, a disclaimer to the effect that “Jane Smith and Joe Snuffy also contributed to this story.”

  3. craig henry says:

    Good post. One of the most balanced on the question i’ve seen. (But then, I’m apparently one of the few Bragg defenders in the blogosphere)

  4. John Lemon says:

    OOh, ooh…you just put me into the “very generous” category.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Heh. I had a prof in grad school that gave me co-author credit, too. I did a ton of the research and some of the writing, but he could easily have gotten away with just using his name on the piece.