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Analysis: Masochism at The Times

By JOHN BLOOM, UPI Reporter-at-Large   |   June 6, 2003 at 7:00 PM   |   Comments

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

have sinned."

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

Blair/Bragg scandal." It's like putting David Duke and Trent Lott

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

basic crime!

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

caliche.

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 joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at

joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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