Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Nothing to Bragg about

I reviewed the new Rick Bragg book for this Sunday’s paper.
Never heard of Rick Bragg?

What about Janet Cooke? Jayson Blair? Stephen Glass?

Bragg resigned from The New York Times after he was exposed for using others’ research as his own. He got in trouble after writing a first-person story about oystermen in Florida. He had the lone byline on the story even though most of the actual reporting was done by an unpaid intern.

Bragg can paint a picture with his pen. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for feature writing and, unlike Janet Cooke, didn’t have to give it back.

I like his Southern-fried prose. I liked it when he was a reporter and I liked it when I read “The Prince of Frogtown,” the last of three reminiscences on his Alabama family.

But my lips still tighten into a frown when I hear his — or Blair’s or Cook’s or Glass’s — name.

It’s how police officers must have felt when Dak Cochran was convicted on child pornography charges or firefighters felt when Michael Kaminski was charged with cocaine trafficking.

The feeling:

Damn it, this guy’s going to ruin it for us all.

Bragg is nowhere near as egregious as Blair, Glass or Cook. No one has accused him of making up stories, just taking credit for work that isn’t his. (And, honestly, he became the scapegoat for a caste system that existed in more than one large newspaper.) But what he did was still implicitly dishonest. He put a dateline on a story, knowing that he spent one night in the town while his intern pounded the pavement for him.

But when one reporter’s credibility is ruined, it affects us all. If it happened at The New York Times, why couldn’t it happen at The News-Herald, people might ask.

My grandparents never wondered if Walter Cronkite was lying. The public will never have that sort of trust for the media again. Not just because of Blair and Glass.

People have grown more cynical — not just toward reporters, toward everything. Name the last politician you trusted. How about the last baseball player?

Every home run feels like a countdown to a steroid scandal. All of today’s heroes feel like tomorrow’s potential villains.

It’s a lonely world where you can’t trust your morning newspaper, your president or your baseball team.

And while I like Bragg as a writer, I hate the Bragg who inadvertently contributed to that world.

-Jason Lea,

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