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Suspended reporter - NY Times suffering 'torturous atmosphere'

Thursday, May 29, 2003

NEW YORK -- New York Times reporter Rick Bragg blamed what he called a "torturous atmosphere" at the newspaper for his suspension in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.

"I'm sorry I got caught up in it," Bragg said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "But the fact is, it's just not a normal time."

The Times reportedly suspended the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for two weeks over his handling of a feature story about Florida oystermen. It said in an editor's note last Friday that while Bragg wrote the June 15 article and visited the Gulf Coast town of Apalachicola, a freelancer handled interviewing and other reporting at the scene.

The note said the article should have carried the freelancer's byline along with Bragg's.

Speaking from New Orleans, where he is based as a national correspondent, Bragg said he plans to follow through on a decision made before the controversy erupted to leave the newspaper, probably this summer, to write two books.

Bragg's autobiography was featured in Cape Girardeau's United We Read campaign earlier this year. United We Read encourages discussion throughout the community of one book.

Bragg said the newspaper often uses freelancers to report from the scene of a story without giving them credit.

"There is a huge gap in byline policy and byline practices here," he said. "It is virtually impossible to get a freelancer a byline in The New York Times."

But Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for the Times, said "given the amount of reporting the freelancer did, he should have also had a byline on the story."

"Especially in a story vivid in reconstructing sights and sounds, readers logically infer that the bylined correspondent has heard the voices and experienced the scenes," Mathis said.

Both the Times and Bragg agree that he had set out to write a broader story about development on the Gulf Coast. Bragg said he did reporting in other cities and briefly visited Apalachicola. But he said J. Wes Yoder -- a recent college graduate who had volunteered to work as an intern for Bragg -- spent four days there and reported such a compelling story that Bragg decided to narrow the scope.

"Mostly his job was to soak up the oyster fishermen ... get everything he could from them, and he did. And he did a wonderful job," Bragg said.

Bragg, 43, who joined the paper in 1994, said he uses freelancers when time demands it, such as covering a lengthy court trial, or when he needs expertise, such as on environmental stories. But he also said that using a freelancer's reporting as the main basis for a story is commonplace at the Times.

But a Times reporter who covered the South for three years for the newspaper before moving to its Washington, D.C., bureau said that while stringers are used for tips or breaking news stories, "it would have been unthinkable for a national reporter to use a stringer for a descriptive feature story."

"The reporters that I know don't simply beautify the notes of stringers, interns, news assistants and clerks; they take most of those notes themselves, and they take pride and pleasure in doing so," David Firestone said in a letter posted on the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school. "They want to see the faces of the people they interview."

Bragg said that even before the suspension, he had planned to leave the Times to fulfill a two-book contract with Random House. He has written several books, including the memoir "All Over but the Shoutin'," and won the feature-writing Pulitzer in 1996, two years after he began working for the Times.

"The truth is the atmosphere at the Times will swing back to normal," he said. "There's going to be more bumps ahead for everybody. But eventually it will swing back to normal."

Blair, 27, resigned May 1 after he was found by the Times to have "committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud." The newspaper announced it would form a committee to review newsroom policies, including hiring practices, the use of unidentified sources, the use of freelancers and byline and dateline practices.


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