NEW YORK, June 2 (UPI) -- Is the New York Times masochistic or what?
In less than a month they've lost two Pulitzer Prize
winners -- a reporter demonized for relying too extensively on his
intern, and an editor demonized for letting himself be bamboozled
by Jayson Blair. But the real story was that the Gray Lady has
started to look like the Dragon Lady. The place is ravenous for
executions, seeming to self-destruct Soviet-style, with
accusations and denunciations and calls for repentance and re-
education and public confessions that all amount to, "Yes, we
Perhaps the better analogy is a Puritan village where
suddenly it's discovered that a dozen people are failing to
observe the Sabbath. Is the pillory enough, or is it to time to
formally cast out demons and execute witches? At The Times, the
pillory wasn't enough.
Any day now I expect The Times owners to request that the
city rename Times Square. "We are not worthy," they will say.
Perhaps we could sentence them to a year of punishment by re-
christening their neighborhood Blair Square. It would have the
advantage of spicing up the double-decker bus tours, most of
which don't even bother to drive by The Times building. "On your
left, the newspaper building where Jayson Blair dispensed cocaine
and pretended to be coming back from the airport."
But what's really going on here? With the two top editors
resigning -- Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd -- there obviously had to
have been some simmering discontent and major-league grudges long
before Jayson Blair invented cell-phone ghost-reporting. How else
do you explain, for example, the vilification of Rick Bragg?
Bragg is the Pulitzer Prize winner drummed off the staff (he
resigned under pressure) after some sort of Accuracy Politburo
dredged up a story that was a year old and said, "Aha! You said
you were on an oyster boat in Florida, but actually your INTERN
was on that boat! And you didn't REVEAL THAT IN PRINT!" And
suddenly it's no longer "the Jayson Blair scandal" but "the
in the same category. One defendant is covered in blood, the
other has cracker crumbs on his shoes -- but, by God, it's the same
Let's put L'Affaire Bragg in perspective here.
We have a term among my Texas colleagues called "collecting
caliche dust." Caliche dust (pronounced ka-LEECH-ie) is an ochre
scrim that, in certain parts of Texas, settles on every square
inch of a town's surface. It coats the roads, clouds the barber
shop windows, and hides under the lapels of your soggy suit.
Collecting caliche dust, as a reporter, means recording so many
tiny sensory details that a story comes to life because you've
accurately described someone's haircut, or shoes, or the way the
moon hangs over an abandoned barn. It's the textual grit of the
story, and is appreciated mostly by fellow writers, who say,
"Good caliche dust on the bank robbery. The dent in the getaway
car was sweet."
One example. The legendary Texas writer Gary Cartwright is
the acknowledged king of caliche dust. While in Las Vegas
covering the Ted Binion murder trial, he scored the ultimate
caliche-dust detail. Sandy Murphy, Binion's live-in girlfriend,
was accused of killing Binion along with her new lover Rick
Tabish. During the trial Murphy was under house arrest and
ordered to wear one of those clumsy ankle devices that would
alert police if she ventured more than 150 feet from her house.
Cartwright noted that, when Murphy appeared in court, the device
was a different color each time. She had painted it to match her
toenails. That's what we call world-class caliche dust--
idiosyncratic physical details that illuminate a story.
Rick Bragg was accused of not collecting his own caliche
dust. He didn't go out on the oyster boat. He sent his intern
instead. I've done the same thing. Once, at the Cannes Film
Festival, I paid a guy fifty bucks to write down what people were
wearing at a party I was unable to crash. I've also used
editorial assistants to make phone calls to characters in a story
and describe to me their demeanors. The reason I sometimes do
this is that caliche-dust is time-consuming. I've sat through
three-hour interviews in which the person being interviewed
thinks I'm hanging on his every word, when in fact I'm writing
down synonyms for the crook of his nose or the way his eyes wince
when he makes a point. In the cases where I can get someone else
to do it, I do. Sometimes you're better off doing more
substantive reporting and letting someone else handle the
And that's what Rick Bragg did. The intern, by the way, was
not employed by The Times. He was Bragg's personal assistant,
working for the summer in return for a rent-free apartment and
meals. Which is what interns do -- they work for the experience of
working. And Bragg paid him out of his own pocket.
Once I was interviewed by Connie Chung. I've never met
Connie Chung or been in the same room with her. A segment
producer asked me questions in Dallas, and later on they filmed
Connie in New York asking the same questions. And they say Rick
Bragg is lazy? Connie Chung electronically paints herself into
places where she's never ventured, and it's considered just part
of the game. Bragg, on the other hand, was working that day--
reporting other aspects of the story from Fort Walton Beach while
the intern was in Apalachicola.
Anyway, I'm going into this in some detail in order to make
the following point:
An organization that would lump together what Jayson Blair
did with what Rick Bragg did is in the grip of some kind of
blaming frenzy. (I guess I should also mention the columnist
Maureen Dowd, who was forced to atone for a presidential quote
that she allegedly took out of context -- something that never
would have been noticed pre-Blair.)
Fortuitously, we have some idea of why the aggressive
blaming might be happening, thanks to the New York Observer,
which has been all over the Times story. Sridhar Pappu, who
writes the excellent "Off the Record" media column for the
Observer, obtained the draft of an in-house petition in which a
dozen or so "young reporters" listed their grievances. They think
there's favoritism in the newsroom. They think that when a job
opening comes along, they don't always get a chance to apply for
it. And then they have a laundry list of things they think the
paper needs, including formal mentoring programs, writing
coaches, "career development employees" (no clue), and -- this is
my favorite one -- journalism classes outside the newsroom.
Yes, there are reporters at The New York Times who believe
they need to go to journalism class.
It's worse than I thought. What kind of managing editor
would hire someone who thinks he needs journalism class? I
believe the common advice is, "Please go to the Akron Beacon-
Journal for five years and call me when you're ready." (Actually,
that's an unfair slap at a fine newspaper. Some of these guys
wouldn't pass muster at the Akron Beacon-Journal.)
If there are all these people at The Times who feel they
need mentors, and career development plans, and writing coaches
(!), then how can you send them to cover City Hall? They can't
even network enough to figure out the company's job openings.
They don't have enough charm to find their own mentor, so how are
they going to charm the mayor's press secretary? As for
journalism classes outside the newsroom -- yes, that's an excellent
idea. Please go back to school so you won't be in the way.
What this sounds like is plain old novice envy. Newspapers
always have disgruntled drones. The whole history of American
journalism, starting with the New York papers that pre-date The
Times, is about extremely young people being given a chance to
show their abilities and climb the ladder. The drone becomes a
worker bee, and the worker bee becomes a killer bee, and the
killer bee becomes an editor. That's the way it's worked since
time immemorial, because newspapering is an art form, not a
factory system that rewards showing up on time.
But apparently the various investigative committees and
management teams at The Times that have been set up to deal with
Blair/Bragg/Dowd are quite happy to be turning themselves into a
government-style bureaucracy based on some kind of civil service
grading system. Early reports are that they'll institute some
kind of incredibly fair, incredibly well-justified, incredibly
monitored, incredibly accountable system of employee justice, and
then those pesky Pulitzer Prize winners like Bragg and Raines and
Dowd won't be able to go off on their own and do things like ... win Pulitzer Prizes.
The Times will scrutinize every expense account, bird-dog
every reporter's movements, and second-guess every story that
doesn't seem to be backed up with the canonical two sources, an
eyewitness, and verification that the Timesman was in his proper
place. And once it's set up that way, the Times will be a safer
place -- for the untalented and the mediocre. After all, it's time
their hopes and dreams were taken seriously.
John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be
contacted at email@example.com or through his Web site at
joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.