A friend and I were talking about personal power, about how reliant people are on labels — Mrs. This, Dr. That, Swami Such 'n' Such — to define their value to and success in the world. "Hmph," mused my friend, "I'll listen to what a former drug user or prostitute has to say about finding your power way before I'd listen to some expert — 'cause they know the real deal."
The remark describes to a "T" my approach to journalism. I value hard facts, compelling data, and insight from the erudite as much as anyone else, but I've never totally relied on that to find truth. Nor have I endeavored to "report" stories so much as tell them — a trait that has worked both for and against me in this business. I once wrote a long, luscious tale about African baobab trees in South Florida, which my editors liked so well that they nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize. Later, though, when I resigned to take another job, newsroom colleagues, tongues loosened by Moët at my goodbye party, said word among bosses was that, while I could write, "You weren't really a reporter anyway."
To some extent that was true. I hadn't been to journalism school; in fact, I hadn't graduated college. But I had a way with words, a way of seeing local and world events, and a way of connecting with people. That raw talent, not to mention a strong diversity initiative, landed me my first job at an alternative paper in North Carolina, where I grew intimidated after learning I was working alongside distinguished writers with advanced degrees from Columbia and Duke, and who'd won a slew of national journalism awards.
While trying to run with such big dogs, I began to read articles by Rick Bragg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who, during the ongoing and insidious fallout at The New York Times, resigned after being suspended for not crediting a stringer on a feature story last year about Florida panhandle oystermen. The comeuppance made what's fast becoming a lynch mob in national media (with Jack Schaefer of Slate.com as acting chairman) foam at the mouth: At last, that glorified, nondegreed, tale-spinning, fried chicken-loving Alabama hick was history. It served him right, the damned prima donna, writing best-selling books and ever fewer news stories after spending only nine years at the paper.
What really ticked off the media Dobermans is how Bragg said his actions are commonplace among high-profile national correspondents. On May 27, Bragg told Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz there was a "poisonous atmosphere" at the Times, adding that he was "taking a bullet," after the Jayson Blair debacle (Third Eye, May 28).
Ethically, I think Bragg was wrong as two left shoes for not sharing a byline with the intern who did most of the legwork for his oysterman story. But, to quote author Wally Lamb, I also know this much is true: Writers like Bragg are a delightful rarity in the newspaper industry. Anybody can tell you what's happening in the world, but not everyone can ping readers' senses and draw them into a news story. In his 1997 memoir All Over But the Shoutin', Bragg, who wrote humanely and often in the Times about tragedy, talks about a story he did in New Orleans:
I was sitting in a cramped living room in a crumbling housing project, listening to a hollow-eyed and pitiful young woman tell how her little boy had been killed one morning by a stray bullet as he stood in the doorway, his book satchel in hand, like a little man going to work. She told me how the Dr. Seuss and Winnie the Pooh just fell out on the stoop, how the boy looked up at her after the bullet hit, wide-eyed, wondering. And as she talked, her two surviving children rode tight circles around the couch on their bicycles, because she was afraid to let them play outside in the killing ground of the project courtyard.
The description is vintage Bragg, but nowhere near his best. His best showed how journalists — whatever their personal or professional pedigree — can make you cry, can make you read and re-read news accounts, can make you call somebody and talk about it, can make you — if you're like me, wanting to do journalism and do it well — pay attention to the small things, the nuances, the places and people whose lives matter but too often go ignored. Bragg's brand of journalism, too chatty and earthy and whiskey-filled for media traditionalists, challenged writers and readers alike to find our passions, our place of political or social power, and act on it.
"I didn't get into this business to change the world; I just wanted to tell stories," Bragg wrote in All Over But the Shoutin'. "But now and then, you can make people care, make people notice that something ain't quite right, and nudge them gently, with the words, to get off their ass and fix it."
Bragg won't be doing that anymore, at least not at the nation's so-called most influential newspaper. Which is not to say such nudging won't be done . . . God willing and the creek don't rise. Afefe Tyehimba writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org