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Unfit to print
Another New York Times reporter forced to resign

By Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
May 30, 2003
Source: The Guardian

The spectacle of a publishing institution in crisis moved to a second act yesterday after the bitter departure of a star writer from the New York Times.

Rick Bragg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his evocative features from the southern US, resigned on Wednesday night, days after the newspaper suspended him (with pay) and admitted that an unpaid assistant had done virtually all of the reporting for a story on oyster fishers in Florida for which Bragg took full credit.

Bragg's descriptive opening paragraph, with its mention of egrets gliding through the skies and grey mullet flopping in the water, had strongly suggested that he had visited the scene.

The downfall of one of the paper's most prized journalists deepened a crisis of credibility at the New York Times caused by the discovery that a young reporter on the fast track had plagiarised or concocted dozens of stories.

The angry and self-pitying nature of Bragg's farewell ensured his exit will prolong the internal agony at the paper, which has been consumed by recriminations and rivalries for weeks. In an interview with the Washington Post, Bragg said he was being made the scapegoat for the earlier scandal involving Jayson Blair, which caused huge embarrassment to the paper and which inflamed old grudges and slights.

Some of the feuding has been conducted in other media outlets - such as last week's leaked exchange of emails between two of the paper's senior writers over a story on Iraq.

The exchange inadvertently raised other questions about newsgathering at the New York Times when the paper's bioterrorism expert, Judith Miller, admitted her main source on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme had been the Pentagon's favoured Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi. That in turn suggested that the Pentagon and Mr Chalabi had used the paper to help create justification for war.

Many have also pointed to resentment of the paper's executive editor, Howell Raines, and speculated about his future.

Bragg, who was said to be a favourite of Raines', said he was being punished for what was common practice at the Times, where journalists made regular use of teams of helpers without assigning them credit.

His colleagues disagreed. Peter Kilborn, a New York Times reporter, wrote in an email posted on the internet yesterday: "Bragg's comments in defence of his reportorial routines are outrageous."

Media websites carried accounts from several other journalists yesterday whose work had appeared uncredited in the New York Times, including Lisa Shuhay, who wrote: "Since the Bragg story broke I have been contacted by writers who have provided vast amounts of description, ambience, the dateline and interviews for Times news pieces and never seen a byline or tag."

Other reports complained of a hierarchy at the Times which allowed Bragg to use a huge network of sources and impose a ban on the editing of his stories.

That response provoked Bragg to conduct a number of further interviews in which he complained of a poisoned workplace atmosphere. But, he told the Washington Post: "I'm too mad to whine about it."

He told reporters from other organisations that he had a $1m book contract waiting for him.

It was this last admission that influenced yesterday's reaction to Bragg's departure from the New York Times on media websites.

Although he has his defenders most responses have been unsympathetic.

Despite the voluminous traffic on websites, the general public has remained largely unaffected by the crisis at the Times. But the newspaper has been under intense observation from its peers following the Jayson Blair scandal.

There is also interest in the results of an internal investigation established by the Times in the wake of the scandal.

Bragg was one of the first journalists at the paper to come under investigation. The work of three others is believed to have come before the panel.

The self-destruction at the Times has been watched avidly and with a large dose of schadenfreude at newsrooms across the US. But it has also led to uncomfortable reflection.

In the wake of the scandal, the Chicago Tribune, the Buffalo News, and other newspapers have called staff meetings to examine their own working practices.

This article was published in the May 30th issue of The Guardian.

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