Today's "This Land" would-be tone poem from the flowery columnist -- chronicling a South Carolina program that encourages prisoners to help solve cold cases with playing cards -- is a story that has been done repeatedly over the years in the national press. It has been a piece done on CNN, Associated Press, CBS This Morning, USA Today and the Denver Post, not to mention WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C. and WISI in Columbia, S.C., in stories that date back to 2006.
Still, Barry's story goes to some lengths to suggest that his story is new. He writes this morning:
The South Carolina Department of Corrections started selling these decks in its prison canteens for $1.72 about a year ago; since then, inmates have bought more than 10,000 packs.
But the WISI-TV story about the South Carolina program -- which was posted over a year ago on its website, on September 16, 2008 -- the station reported:
Prison officials say playing cards is a popular pastime behind bars. In the past year, the 24,000 inmates in South Carolina prisons bought more than 14,000 decks of cards for their own use.
We wouldn't keep harping on the NYT "This Land" columnist's frequent half-baked retreads -- stories that have been reported elsewhere earlier, that he repackages for NYT consumption -- because as journalism crimes go, it's a petty misdemeanor.
But at a time when 100 NYT newsroom employees face the possibility of a layoff -- and executive editor Bill Keller has declared that "we intend to use merit to decide who is laid off and who is not" -- it seems reasonable to wonder whether Barry is worth the considerable salary he's paid to roam the country in search of clippings and news reports.
Barry's sin is simple: the Pulitzer Prize-winner doesn't seem to much care that -- in a column devoted to chronicling the quirky off-the-beaten track stories that bring America to life -- the stories he tells have sometimes already been told in other newspapers, or on television.
Just since February, The NYTPicker has noted three previous Barry columns on topics and characters that have been previously covered elsewhere:
On February 2, Barry wrote about a 115-year-old murder case in North Carolina that had been chronicled one week earlier in the Winston-Salem Journal.
A June 1 Barry column about a New Hampshire bakery had been reported on the Boston Globe's front page ten days earlier.
On July 31, Barry's story about a homeless enclave in Rhode Island -- chronicled repeatedly elsewhere in the local press -- contained stale information and neglected to report the fact that his central character was a twice-convicted child rapist.
It seems to us that a journalist's calling ought to involve shining a light where others can't or won't go. But at times Barry seems attracted to the lights shined by others, as if to challenge himself to produce a better, more effective chroncicle of a story than the one already told.
But can he? Barry's oveheated prose style tends to call attention as much to itself as to the topic. In today's column, describing the playing cards used by prisoners with pictures of murder victims on their faces, Barry writes:
Hands are won and lost as the inmates shuffle and toss the cards on top of one another. Their discards form kaleidoscopic arrangements in which the dead and the missing peer up together, as though from a deep, shared hole.
The “unsolved” decks, long since stripped of any reverence, are now part of the everyday prison culture here. Inmates say that the cards are too expensive, that the cards are not as sturdy as those they replaced, that sometimes a card is just a card.
“I’m tired of seeing James,” says a man hunched around a hand he’s just been dealt. James is James Oneal Boulware, shot to death in Rock Hill a couple of years ago. The two of spades.
James and 51 others are soon shuffled and spun across tables to form new combinations of faint possibility. Read ’em and weep.
Barry knows whereof he speaks. All too often, he shuffles the pile of clippings on his desk to form new combinations of faint possibility.
One of the things we love about the NYT's wonderful "One In 8 Million" series is its assurance to readers that its subjects have never been written about before -- and the feeling of freshness that derives from that promise. In a country with 304 million people, isn't it possible for Barry to make a similar "This Land" pledge?
Maybe it's time for the NYT to put Barry on the layoff list, and find a new, talented columnist to take his place -- someone with the energy and determination to find original ideas and undiscovered characters for a "This Land column worthy of its resonant name.