It's not everyone who lands a career doing something they truly love, something that's perfectly suited to who they are and how they relate to the world. Few who have followed Rick Bragg's reporter-to-author career would argue that the man wasn't born to write. But Pulitzer Prize-winning articles and best-selling books (including Bragg's most recent effort, I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story) haven't stopped tongues from wagging about his bitter departure from The New York Times last May.
You remember: When that asinine wannabe reporter Jayson Blair, unwittingly joined by top (former) executives on the Times' editorial staff, took what must have been a bad acid trip that resulted in falsely reported news articles and, later, resignations. Around that time, Bragg was admonished by bosses and colleagues for not crediting an intern who'd done most of the legwork for an article on Florida oystermen. He resigned, too.
Bragg's departure was made more poignant by the intern's subsequent admission that he'd expected no byline, and assertions from other national journalists that such use of freelance reporters is standard industry practice. It was a shame Bragg was gone, but no one worried that he'd go hungry. He'd already written two lauded family memoirs, and lecture-circuit fees alone could provide for life the fried chicken and other Southern delicacies that Bragg, a native Alabamian, adores.
Then came the Lynch book deal and, ta-da, the haters who can't believe Bragg's luck. Many reviewers took detours from Lynch's ordeal to spin about Bragg's brouhaha at the Times. And in a Nov. 15 story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, writer Chris Rose, who claimed to be a long-time friend of Bragg's, tried to push the author on the topic of life-after-the-debacle. "Bragg tells me we're off the record and begins the first of what will be 11 profanity-laced, unpublishable commentaries about the world in general and journalism in particular," Rose writes.
"I grasp for words, for something to steer us into a frank discussion. I ask [Bragg] if the Lynch camp wasn't concerned that they might be working with 'a sullied and tarnished' writer and — Bragg interrupts: 'If you write that I'm sullied and tarnished, we won't be friends anymore.' He pauses and looks at me and adds: 'And I will whip your ass.'"
It's not the first time Bragg has threatened fisticuffs against someone who has challenged his reputation or intellect — two important things to a man whose path to success was paved by years of hunger, crushing poverty, and anger at an absent father. In his 1997 memoir, All Over but the Shoutin', Bragg wrote about receiving a Neiman fellowship at Harvard University in 1992, only to find himself feeling like an outsider among mostly Ivy League-schooled journalists who didn't know what to make of the nondegreed, rough-edged Southerner in their midst. Once, when a table companion at a stately dinner inside the Harvard Faculty Club ridiculed Bragg's nonfavorable assessment of then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno--a remark made "sometime between the chateaubriand and a stirring speech by a Native American newspaper publisher," he recalled — a red-faced Bragg almost wrecked shop, but pulled himself together.
The thin skin, Bragg wrote, came from a life spent wondering "if I was as good, as smart, as clean as the people around me." Bragg's natural talent earned him awards and favored status with editors at prestigious newspapers such as the Times. But it had never given him a sense of validation or acceptance among his highly educated and well-connected media peers — people he both loathed and admired.
For years, Bragg tackled his professional ambiguities by showing how he could run with, and very often ahead of, the media pack. His hauntingly human stories in the wakes of the Oklahoma City bombings, the Susan Smith baby murders in Union, S.C. (both of which helped garner that Pulitzer), and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (when he reported from Pakistan) were the stuff of informative and vividly compelling journalism.
Bragg may never have received praise from all corners of the world — nor does he seem a megalomaniac who needs that. At the same time, it's a safe bet Bragg never saw himself one day resigning from the country's top newspaper under a cloud of negative headlines and paranoia-inspired controversy. All these months later, if Bragg did dis Rose for dredging all that up, who could blame him?
In Shoutin', Bragg wrote that he used all his Pulitzer prize money and other savings to buy his mother a house, paid in full. "The only thing worse than doing without is to be given something and then have it snatched away, and I could not take that chance," he wrote. I figure a man who thinks like that doesn't take kindly to either temporary or prolonged disgrace. But a hunch says Bragg, who made half a mil on the Lynch book deal, and has inked a three-book deal has figured out that his pen is mightier than the sword. Afefe Tyehimba writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org