All the news that’s fit to print about all the news that’s fit to print

All the news that’s fit to print about all the news that’s fit to print
: Having someone else do your reporting for you — which is how Rick Bragg wrote a story from a Florida town without spending much time there — is hardly a new or scandalous behavior in the news biz.

Every reporter you see on TV has a producer doing legwork aplenty — and often even conducting the interviews (with the TV star edited in later).

The newsmagazines have armies of correspondents getting the facts for the stories written in New York (and whenever an editor wants to know something that’s not there, they put a blank in the story — a “TK” — that is filled in by a researcher).

What Rick Bragg did was no cause for suspension or the sliming of his career. Says Bragg: “Those things are common at the paper. Most national correspondents will tell you they rely on stringers and researchers and interns and clerks and news assistants.” And not just at the Times but everywhere in the business.

: If there’s justice or taste in the publishing business (you’re welcome for the straight line) no one will buy the book written by stinking liar Jayson Blair. It will have absolutely no credibility. But Times-haters will buy it and quote it and so someone will publish it.

Read Howard Kurtz’ weekend story about the book proposal to see just how far up the ass a human head can go.

Blair says of Malvo, the alleged triggerman in some of the Washington-area sniper murders last fall: “The moment I began to see parallels between his life and mine was the moment things began falling apart.” He writes of “how the frustrations of black men in this world can explode, crescendo into a huge rage that can manifest itself in some odd and sometimes unclear ways.”

In the proposal, which was read to The Washington Post by a source not connected to Blair, the 27-year-old admits that he “really screwed up,” “distorted the truth” and “embarrassed the New York Times and myself.” But the dominant motif is one of anger — hurling unsubstantiated charges of racism at the paper and promising to reveal the Times’s “darkest secrets,” which he says, without offering evidence, involve drug parties and one editor’s affair with an intern.

Blair casts his story as one of “a young black man” told he would never succeed “by everyone from his white second-grade teacher to his editor at the Times, who rose from the fields and got a place in the master’s house and then burned it down the only way he knew how.”

He doesn’t just play the race card. He plays the race casino. So black rage is an excuse for lying, cheating, sliming, and sleazing (and by extension to Malvo: murder)? No, there’s no excuse for what he did. None.

: UPDATE: Late-breaking opinions….. Reading my comments on this post, I have a few responses….. I’m not saying that it’s right not to credit stringer and other lowly souls. I’m saying that it is done everywhere and thus it’s wrong to treat Bragg as if it is a sudden sin he just invented. It’s not. It’s standard practice. Whether or not it should be standard practice is an entirely different argument. But it’s one in which Bragg should not be caught in the middle…. I need a copy editor to fix that last sentence….. Gawd, I miss writing with dots….. Stop me…..

: And on bylines: As I was saying to Elizabeth Spiers at lunch today… Andnow that she’s a hot media property, that’s quality name-dropping… Anyway, as I was saying today and now I’m obnoxiously quoting myself…. 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. Thus, nobody else in the world could possibly give a rat’s rump about Rick Bragg’s byline….

  • Jeff: The WSJ did an exhaustive analysis of the pros and cons of stringers and byline ethics today. What a waste of newsprint and pixels. Fact is, most people don’t even read bylines and could care less who wrote the story. What they do care about is the story’s accuracy.
    That’s what the media should be ringing its hands over. As you said, Bragg is being victimized for a practice that’s quite common. I guess we can expect at least a few more weeks of overreaction. I just hope the real issues don’t get lost in this frenzy of self-flagellation.

  • TX Vet

    This whole drag on Bragg is pissing me off.
    Anyone who thinks modern journalism is a one-man band is just silly. It seems Bragg is being flagged for a little “sin” so people will be diverted from the real issue.
    I hope there are stringers out chasing down Blair’s “second grade teacher” and who/what ever else can be found to blow Blair out of the water. I think everyone is aware of slant or spin, we expect it even tailor our reading to it, but out and out lies and plagiarism are totally unforgivable.
    While I personally won’t read the Times, I most certainly wouldn’t read much less buy Blair’s book. Unfortunately there are those who will. Perhaps if he is continually embarrassed in public his profit can be minimized.

  • …and one more thing :-).
    Every news organization should have an ombudsman. It won’t solve all the problems but it will definitely increase accountability to the public and force people inside newsrooms to look at what they do from a fresh perspective.
    For all the time news operations spend looking at and critiquing the work of others, they are notoriously bad at turning a critical eye on themselves.
    Romenesko has a collection of observations from some of the better known ombudsmen.
    Ok, I’ll stop now.

  • I think it’s deceptive for Rick Bragg to make up atmospheric details for his I-was-there tone, while relying completely on some uncredited kid’s reporting. But his editors had to know that he wasn’t doing his own reporting and couldn’t be in all the places in his datelines for more than a brief visit. Not crediting non-star reporters appears to be established policy at the Times. So where do they get off blaming Bragg and not his editors?
    As for Jayson Blair: If the guy sat down and tried to develop a plan to cause the most damage to the careers of other minority journalists, he couldn’t be doing any better. He’s casting his own lies as a black thing, not a Jayson-is-a-jerk thing. His second-grade teacher was right.

  • Respectfully disagree, Jeff et al. It may be common and longstanding practice (it happened to my wife in 1989), but it’s not universal practice or fair practice to stiff co-reporters … excuse me, stringers … out of their bylines, and pretend to the readers the story was all done by the sahib reporter from the Big City.
    That said, I agree that “common practice” gives Bragg a plausible out, although he pushed the practice to a new level. That makes me wonder if Bragg is getting scapegoated, and other Times reporters who’ve done +/- the same thing are getting a warning shot across the bow. I don’t think it will have a positive effect on uncovering other Jayson-Blair-fraud-type stories at the Times.
    I’m not in the business; is there a financial reason at some papers to keep stringers off the bylines, ie, x number of bylines make a “stringer” a “reporter” entitled to better comp and benefits?

  • and it’s also long-standing practice to add: “With files from…” at the end of a piece. I just read an Entertainment Weekly article that had about 12 reporters listed at the end of a 1500 word article about a 5 year old movie!
    Anyway: race casino is a classic. And will somebody tell Blair that Law and Order covered the race-rage thing a few seasons back already?

  • “Race casino.” What a perfect description.
    On Bragg: the papers that I read typically reflect “Contributions from…” or some other hat tip to stringers. It was nothing short of deceptive for him to omit such an easy credit to those who made his work possible.

  • So…what? Bragg gets off on a plea from habit? Is that it?
    Come on, Jeff. Look: how hard could it be to simply credit stringers in the story? It needn’t go to the length that Bob Herbert did in his smoking story about The Oak Bar in New York, but here is a question for you: if not for the work of stringers, then how could Bragg even hope to come up with “atmospheric details” (thank you, Joanne Jacobs) of outright fiction? How do you think these lines get crossed?
    And if we can’t indict Bragg because it’s the culture at the Times, then the obvious fact is that we’re gonna need a lot more rope.

  • Mike G

    I agree with everybody.
    I agree that it’s no shock that there are unseen minions behind much journalism.
    I agree that it would be a better world if they got some credit, and that even if no one out there cares, the very fact that there’s a team on a story as opposed to just Famous Guy tells you some little thing about how it got made. It would be an even better world if each story came with disclosure about what publicists extracted from the publication (“Profile by James Wolcott. Text approved in advance by Pat Kingsley in return for cover photo of Mr. Cruise…”)
    I agree that Bragg does appear to be the white sacrificial lamb that Raines is throwing overboard, and it’s probably not entirely fair.
    I agree that, on the other hand, Bragg practiced a form of downhome homespun personal memoir journalism that is at odds with his parachute in, do a standup and parachute out (by the way, how the hell do you parachute OUT?) reality that reveals him to be not much different from Bob (“I was in my hotel room and noticed something which I am now going to expand into a comment on modern America without ever actually getting closer to modern America than the hotel bar”) Greene.
    Live by a shtick, die by a shtick…

  • Old Grouch

    “…how the hell do you parachute OUT?”

    It was Scott Adams who came up with the term bungee boss. Perhaps “bungee reporters,” too?

  • Hi, I’m an “unseen minion”, as earlier described. Where I work, my boss (the reporter) has no byline either; in fact, no one in editorial has their bylines published anywhere in the newspaper. Does that make it more fair?
    I don’t think it matters too much actually, as long as your work is recognised when it counts.

  • And what about overseas reporting? The big star foreign correspondents who don’t speak the language — like here, in Israel, where I live — are completely dependent on their local staff and fixers to tell them what is really going on. Are they going to put the names of the fixers on the story? I think not.
    Oh, and here’s a trade secret from Israel: much of what you read in the States under bylines is just pulled out of the Hebrew-language press and translated. The most reputable (high-budget) organizations do bother to fact-check and chase the leaders down for their own quotes, but most don’t. You get what someone said on the radio as if he said it to that particular newspaper, with no attribution.