THEY called it "working magic" and Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was acknowledged as one of the best colour writers the New York Times possessed. So, when he began a story on the struggles faced by oystermen in Apalachicola in his trademark style, no-one thought anything was untoward.
"Bobby Varnes," wrote Bragg, "prods the sandy bottom with a worn wooden pole, rhythmically stabbing at the soft sand as the boat idles along, waiting for the pole to strike a hard, brittle shell ..." There was much more in a similar vein in a piece that painted a vivid picture of life on Florida’s Gulf coast.
Perhaps it was too vivid. For it transpires that Bragg spent just two hours in Apalachicola. The bulk of the reporting and interviews for the story had been conducted by an unpaid intern over the previous four days. Bragg has now been suspended by the New York Times for two weeks and has confirmed he plans to resign.
This latest episode of questionable journalistic integrity could not come at a more embarrassing time for the paper. The Times, which considers itself the best newspaper in the world, is still struggling to deal with the Jayson Blair affair; the young reporter, it emerged, had either fabricated or plagiarised 36 stories in his brief time at the paper.
The paper’s critics, who believe it is insufferably pompous and self-righteous at the best of times, are revelling in its discomfort and especially that of its editor, Howell Raines, a long-standing friend of Bragg.
Bragg maintains his behaviour in Florida was standard procedure. The Times, however, believes he overstepped the bounds of acceptable practice. It was, therefore, the manner of the deception rather than the matter of it that led to his suspension.
As the Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis put it: "Especially in a story so vivid in reconstructing sights and sounds, readers logically infer that the bylined correspondent has heard the voices and experienced the scenes."
The intern who did much of Bragg’s legwork, J Wes Yoder, has no complaints, however. He told the Columbia Journalism Review: "I did most of the reporting and Rick wrote it. Nothing’s inaccurate. Rick tried to bring the piece alive, to take the reader there, and he did a darn good job of it." Bragg told the CJR: "It would have been nice for J Wes to share a byline, or at least a tagline, but that’s not the policy."
Other unpaid freelances used by Bragg in the past argue the scandal is being blown out of proportion. Childs Walker worked as Bragg’s assistant in Atlanta in 1998. He told The Scotsman: "I conducted interviews with sources for Rick’s stories and typed up notes from those interviews, which Rick then worked into his final versions. I also helped him find sources whom he ultimately interviewed himself."
Walker, now a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, added: "I felt I got all I wanted out of the experience."
Bragg told the Washington Post: "Obviously, I'm taking a bullet here, anyone with half a brain can see that. [But] I’m too mad to whine about it. It is not unusual to send someone to conduct an interview you don't have time to conduct. It’s what we do."
Although Bragg’s reputation for honesty and accuracy is under scrutiny, the real target may be Raines, whose editorship of the paper has been unusually controversial by the staid standards of American journalism. .
More than a dozen senior reporters have left the paper since Raines took over and morale is said to be lower than rock-bottom. Bragg referred this week to the "poisonous" atmosphere at the paper.
Yoder revealed that he and Bragg had dinner with Raines last summer, making it appear improbable that the editor did not know of Bragg’s arrangement with the young intern.
It was only when the Times, as part of its self-flagellation over the Blair case, invited its readers to send in examples of any other questionable stories that one queried how Bragg could have written so authoritatively about the oystermen, as few people in Apalachicola (population 2,334) recalled seeing him.
Should further scandals or examples of journalistic sharp-practice come to light the Times may need to reconsider the proud boast emblazoned on its masthead, "All the news that’s fit to print."
"All the news that’s fit to print and some it’s fine to make up" doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.