Monday, November 16, 2009

Read It And Weep: Dan Barry Borrows Yet Another Story Idea From Newspapers and TV, Adds Sugar And Spice, Serves Cold.

Dan Barry has done it again.

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.

Who's right?

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.

Or this:

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.


Anonymous said...

NP will not let up on this dude. I like it.

Anonymous said...

Not to nitpick nytpicker, but the two paragrafs you juxtapose with gotcha-like delight ("Who's right?")as if they can't both be true -- might both be true.
Barry writes: "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."
WISI-TV says: "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."
Barry refers specifically to "these cards," the murder-victims playing cards.
WISI-TV is pretty vague: "Playing cards is a popular pastime behind bars," and then goes on to tell us South Carolina inmates "bought 14,000 decks of cards."
Were those 14,000 decks of murder cards? Or 14,000 packs of regular old popular-pastime-in-prison cards? (If your WISI paragraf comes from a transcript, I'd say it's WISI that's doing the number-fudging here..)
But to the larger issue, cut the guy some slack. Anybody who's going to write a journal like that is going to pick stuff up from local news. Charles Kuralt did it, William Geist does it. So does every foreign correspondent on the planet.
In general, I'd rather read Barry's version of any given story than the version he's allegedly stealing from. He's a good writer.

Brian C. Jones said...

The Nov. 16 post by The NYTPicker about Dan Barry is so mean spirited and wide of the mark that I hesitate to comment. But the predatory character of the blog’s tirade, which turns day into night and so misrepresents Barry’s journalism and ethics, makes it difficult to stay silent.
The blog’s thesis is that Barry’s “Our Land” column is fatally diminished as it crosses 50 states in search of vital stories, because some of the subjects have been covered earlier by other papers and news outlets. The post argues that, as The Times takes the axe to scores more newsroom jobs, fairness dictates that the columnist be among the first staffers marched to the layoff guillotine.
The blog’s offense is its character attack, suggesting that Barry takes lazy, unprofessional shortcuts as he delivers a sub par product to Times’ readers. The opposite is true, as Barry’s readers know and as colleagues have witnessed. Not only is Barry possessed of an astonishing work ethic, but his writing is grounded in a steely, almost Calvinistic integrity that drives every keystroke.
As to the supposed demerit, that some stories have been told earlier in other media, it is hardly unusual to pick up a story idea that already has appeared elsewhere. Most story subjects aren’t original. They often start locally and work their way through the news ecosystem. Were this not the case, virtually all news would die with the originating source, and NPR, the TV networks, cable services, the Associated Press and most of the Internet would have little to say.
What counts is whether a story is of use and interest to the readers, and how the story is reported and told. One of Barry’s gifts is his unique insight, spotting elements in stories overlooked by other journalists.
It’s something that I and other reporters at The Providence Journal in the 1980s and 1990s witnessed when Barry was at the Rhode Island paper, and again after he had migrated to The Times and returned occasionally.
An example was the horrific fire in The Station nightclub of 2003, which killed 100. Barry led the Times team in Rhode Island, and co-wrote one story that captured the tragedy’s impact on a tiny state. The lead:
"In the neighborhood known as Rhode Island, nearly everyone knew where this place was: next to Knight's Garage, across from the Cowesett Inn. Long ago it had been an Italian restaurant, Papa something, and then it became a music club for a younger crowd, but still, nearly everyone knew where this place was."
The small-town/ small-state theme was backed up by the story’s description of three of the principals in the event – the owner of the nightclub, who escaped the fire; the evening’s DJ, who did not; and a talk show host, who covered the aftermath. In college, all had worked together at the same radio station. It was a while before the hometown paper made the same connections.
To understand his skill, Times readers need only look back at Barry’s stories on Flight 800, 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina. Many of Barry’s stories are masterpieces that almost call out from electronic archives, demanding to be read again and this time out loud.
Barry brings to journalism such an array of talents and abilities that, far from deserving to be the first candidate on The Times’ layoff roster, he might be the nominee of many colleagues to be the last writer asked to leave the last newsroom.
A footnote. The NYTPicker criticized Barry’s column about decks of playing cards distributed to South Carolina prisoners as a device to solve open criminal cases. The NYTPicker chides Barry for writing that officials started selling the cards “about a year ago,” but that WISI-TV in Columbia, S.C. had a 2008 story saying the packs had been in circulation “in the past year.”
The blog demands: “Who’s right?”
Well, not “WISI-TV.” That station doesn’t exist. The Columbia outlet’s call letters are WIS. Small point. But so is the whole post.
Brian C. Jones
Newport, R.I.


We appreciate Mr. Jones's thoughtful defense of Dan Barry. But a couple of quick corrections.

One, we didn't engage in a "character attack." We don't know anything about Barry's character. Our post only addresses the sometime lack of originality of his recent columns.

Two, we didn't raise any questions about Barry's ethics. We presume him to be an ethical and honest journalist, and have no reason to think otherwise.

Barry has written some wonderful stories over the course of his career. But our purpose isn't to hand out kudos for his past work, it's to apply tough standards to his current efforts.

Anonymous said...

The NYTpicker's response to Brian Jones is disingenuous and belied by the kicker of the original post:

"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."

Not judging Barry's character? Please.

On the other hand, there's an alternative phrase for "work their way through the news ecosystem," as Jones puts it. It's "big-footing."

There's a considerable difference between using a reporter's hard won experience and sources to bring richness and depth to a story, as Jones shows with Barry's deadline coverage of the Station fire in Rhode Island, and parachuting into a place to recycle the work of local journalists, as a few of Mr. Barry's columns might suggest he did.

Any journalist who has worked on both sides of the Times news equation -- as staff member and competitor, as I have -- knows the frustration of having diligent reporting and scoops and sometimes just artfully constructed features go unnoticed until the Times claims them as its own.

Brian C. Jones said...

Inevitably, in pointing out someone else’s errors, one risks making his own, and I made at least one here earlier today (although not those alleged in The NYTPicker’s reply).

In commenting on The NYTPicker’s Nov. 16 blog about Dan Barry’s latest column, I called his column “Our Land,” when the title is “This Land.”

Especially since I had made an issue of The NYTPicker’s addition of an extra letter to a South Carolina TV station’s call letters, it’s appropriate to acknowledge my error.

Brian C. Jones
Newport, RI

bbbeaty said...

I find it quite amusing that those who skulk in the cowardly shadows of anonymity feel free to smear the character of a reputable and gifted journalist such as Mr. Barry. This questionable "team of journalists" could never hold itself to the ethical standards of Mr. Barry for it offers nothing of worth by which it would be judged. How easy it must be for this "team" to put others to the test when they themselves slither away from truth. Perhaps these "journalists" might reveal themselves and stand on their "laurels" in order to attain Mr. Barry's journalistic credibility.

Christopher Gray said...

I have never met Dan Barry. I like and admire his writing. Frequently his stories are worth the price of the paper for a month. The New York Times would be much diminished without him.

Christopher Gray