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In TV news, taking credit is called business as usual


A reporter taking credit for a colleague's work? For shame! Yet....

Many television newsrooms are surely puzzled by what happened to Rick Bragg at the New York Times. Either that or they're having a big laugh about it.

Bragg, who has a Pulitzer Prize, quit the Times last week after the paper suspended him over a story that carried his byline. Trouble was, it was reported largely by a freelancer who received no credit as either a co-writer or contributor.

In newspapers with integrity, such deception is a no-no, arguably meriting dismissal instead of mere suspension.

In TV news -- which lives and dies by a star system -- it not only happens routinely, it's encouraged and rewarded.

The Bragg article in question, about Gulf Coast oystermen, ran June 15, 2002,on the front page of the New York Times. Datelined Apalachicola, Fla., it was gracefully written and packed with Braggian narrative detail, creating the impression that he personally had seen and heard everything he described. For example, that oysterman prodding "the sandy bottom with a worn wooden pole, rhythmically stabbing at the soft sand as the boat idles along, waiting for the pole to strike a hard, brittle shell."

Surely Bragg was there.

But the Times explained recently in an editor's note that although Bragg "visited Apalachicola briefly and wrote the article, the interviewing and reporting on the scene were done by a freelance journalist, J. Wes Yoder."

Talk about your team coverage.

Clearly, this has been a scorching spring for the Times, proving that newspapers, even colossal ones, are hardly flawless. Compared with TV on this issue, though, they reside with the angels.

In essence, what Bragg did has long been common practice on newscasts, where credit for stories, either explicit or implied, often goes to the news stars who least earn it.

No one resigns or gets fired over this because it's the bricks and mortar of a system that shores up and puts a shine on personalities as a way of attracting viewers. The theory: Advertise them as world-class journalists, even if they're not, and ratings will follow.

At times this amounts to something as relatively benign as anchors and reporters quoting "sources" that are someone else's sources. Other times we find local stations deceptively inserting their own personnel into stories provided by electronic news services and attaching them to scripts, sound bites and visuals that they hope to pass off as their own. They can do this contractually. Yet being legal doesn't make it ethical.

In any case, the person doing the stand-up in front of the camera -- bright eyes, bright smile, bright teeth -- is often a gleaming hood ornament on an invisible chassis.

There's complexity in our attitudes about lies and how we accommodate deception. Even good newspapers sometimes traffic in fibs, as when running opinion pieces under the bylines of U.S. senators or representatives that they suspect were written by congressional staffers. And just about everyone embraced the little white fable fed to the media last week, that Bob Hope greeted his 100th birthday with a string of one-liners.

But there are lies and there are lies.

The shady little sham of TV news for years has been anonymous field producers, the small screen's unseen, unheard, unheralded J. Wes Yoders who dig out, research and do much of the interviewing for stories credited to others.

"60 Minutes" and other TV news magazines began listing the names of field producers with stories years ago, even though that CBS series virtually ignored them in a recent show celebrating its 35th anniversary.

In regular newscasts, their contributions are kept from the public all the time.

At the very least, they're unnamed collaborators who are assigned lesser interviews and collect information for reporters who, for logistical reasons, cannot do everything themselves, especially when crashing to meet tight TV deadlines. That's understandable.

But the issue is one of disclosure.

The system was outed a few years ago when CNN fired star correspondent Peter Arnett despite his protestations that he did no reporting and was essentially an on-camera front for the network's discredited "Operation Tailwind" expose.

Much hand-wringing followed, as if TV news had not been desensitizing the public for years by caressing deception in a repetitive droning much like Bill Murray reliving the same 24 hours again and again in "Groundhog Day."

The list includes falsely promising viewers titillating news is "coming up next" when it isn't and creating so-called stories whose sole purpose is to promote entertainment programs elsewhere on the schedule.

That, and much else appearing in newscasts, makes Rick Bragg look like Mister Rogers.


Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes. com

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