Interviewee: Ricky Bragg
Interviewer: Kelley Benham
Date: October 1, 1995
Q: You have a reputation as being one of the best storytellers in newspapers today.
Where did you develop that skill?
A: Well, I come from a long line of liars and story tellers. Much of my family was
illiterate, but they were great storytellers in an oral sense. When I was a little boy
I would sit at the feet of my father, grandfather, uncles and their drinking buddies
and listen to them tell tales on the front porch of our old house after supper on
They were masters of drama, and comedy, and tragedy. They told stories about
strange men in Korea who kept coming at them even after they had shot them
twice, they told stories about dogs that could climb a tree, about mean women in
Rome, Georgia, who kept a razor kept down the neck of their blouse.
The stories started out mostly true, but the more whiskey they drank, the more
the truth was sacrificed to the story. All I try to do in my work is weave in all that
tragedy, drama and comedy, but stay true.
Some people say I write like a woman. I'm not sure what that means. But I do
know that my father's story telling was only half of my education. While he and
the men would talk about blood and sport and fish as big as a bulldog, my mother
and her sisters would hold court around my grandmother in the kitchen and tell
gentler stories about babies born, funerals that were "beautiful," and the nicer,
sadder, sweeter side of growing up in rural Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s.
Q: You answered that question like you were writing one of your newspaper stories.
A: I don't know any other way to talk.
Q: A lot of journalists today seem to come from the same middle class and
upper-middle class backgrounds. But you didn't grow up that way, did you?
A: Not damn hardly. My momma was abandoned by my daddy three times, for
months or years. He finally left us for good when I was 10 or 11, I think, and died
from alcoholism and tuberculosis when I was in the tenth grade.
That doesn't mean he didn't have an influence, only that much of it was bad. He
left me with a few skills. He taught me that if a batter gets a good hit off you, then
the next time he comes to the plate, throw a fastball at his head. He taught me
that if a man is kicking your ass in a fist fight, it is honorable to hit him with a rock,
or a bottle, or to try to thumb out one of his eyes.
He also left me with some books. At a time when the kids my age were dropping
out of school to work in the cotton mill or as a pulpwooder, my daddy encouraged
me to read. He bought books by the pound and gave them to me in cardboard
boxes. He had no idea what to buy. There would be a copy of All the Kings Men
by Robert Penn Warren beside sheer and utter trash, paperbacks with half-naked
nurses and titles like "Young Surgeon in Love." But there would also be the
complete Tarzan series, or Innocents Abroad, or Edgar Allen Poe. When people
ask me how did I learn to write, who were my influence, the truth is, everyone.
But while I owe my father for those gifts, that probably altered my life, he was a
thoroughly worthless man. He left my mother to raise three sons and never
seemed to care if we were going ragged or even hungry ...
Q: What about your mom?
A: My momma took up the slack. She picked cotton for a living in a time just before
the big mechanical cotton pickers took over, working in red-dirt fields with poor
blacks and white trash who had no other skills and no other possibilities. She
worked as a maid, and she took in ironing and washing for other people. She
worked as a waitress in A.G. Baggett's Truck Stop. With the help of her sisters,
she kept us in clothes and groceries.
Q: You won a national award for a story on her...
A: The story that won that award was more a tribute than anything else; I didn't
really give a damn if anybody else read it, but I wanted her to see it. It was
supposed to be a column on Mother's Day, but the features editor at the St.
Petersburg Times wanted to make it a centerpiece with pictures of my mom.
When I sent her a copy of the story, and talked to her on the phone, her only
comment was: "I didn't know that anyone ever noticed." I think what she meant
was, that no one thought that what she was doing was anything special.
Q: Tell me about the place you were born and how you grew up.
A: Believe it or not, I started to come into this world about halfway through the first
ever Calhoun County showing of The Ten Commandments. My momma and
daddy were at the Midway Drive-In, about halfway between Anniston and
Jacksonville Alabama. My momma started going into labor and they took the
speaker off the window and headed the car toward Piedmont. There were
hospitals closer by, but the one in Piedmont was cheaper. My momma blushes
and refuses to talk about the details of my birth, but I have it on good authority
that I was either born in the parking lot of Piedmont hospital, or sooner. Momma
I grew up in the little communities that lie in the foothills of the Appalachians. It's
cotton farming country, punctuated with mountains so green that they can almost
hurt your eyes. Most of my life we lived in the communities of Roy Webb,
Williams, and Possum Trot. Possum Trot's main distinction was that it was the
place people went to take off unwanted dogs. They'd put the poor dog in the
trunk of the car, drive out to this isolated community and dump them out, then
drive away fast. It may seem inhumane, but it was better than buckshot. The one
good thing about it was we were never short on dogs.
Q: What was it like being a child of the civil rights era?
A: [Nods.] I still remember going to Anniston, Alabama and seeing George Wallace
stand on the stage at the Anniston Auditorium and talk about "nigras" and if we-if
my momma and daddy and aunts and uncles and cousins-would vote for him he
would protect our way of life. That always sounded kind of funny to me, seeing as
how we lived in a shack and had virtually nothing except some raggedy-ass car
and other people's throwaway dogs. I was only a child then, but I was smart
enough to know that most of the people in this room-pipe shop workers, farmers,
soldiers from Ft. McClellan and other blue-collar folks-lived pretty much the
same way that we did. Maybe their life was a few pegs higher than the black
folks, but I'm not sure it was anything worth protecting.
Q: What was your own family's personal feelings about integration?
A: Back then, integration was one of those $25 words that the politicians in suits
talked about. But despite what people think, it was not a preoccupation with us.
Until I was 6, I had never even seen a black person, except on a few occasions
we saw them when we went to buy groceries in town, and that was rare ...
... But something happened when I was 6 or maybe 7, when my daddy got a job
at a body and fender shop in a nearby community called Spring Garden. He
moved us out of the little house that I had grown up in surrounded by my
mother's relatives, and he took us about 25 miles away to this isolated little
place-well I guess it wasn't anymore isolated than where I had grown up-and
rented this tumble-down, old two-story white house-what used to be the beautiful
main house of a big farm ...
... There was a small colony of black folks who lived in the old sharecroppers'
houses less than a mile away down a dirt road. And it was through their children
that we had our first exposure and experiences with blacks. At first it was ugly.
We threw rocks at them, and they threw rocks back. But then we slowly but
surely-I guess out of curiosity more than anything else-got to know each other a
little bit. One of them, I remember, had a head too big for his body, and we called
him Water Head. We would go swimming together and talked for long hours
about why their hair was the way it was and why their palms looked just like ours.
We operated out of ignorance, and I'm sure this might even sound a little
insulting to many black folks in the current racial climate we live in, but it seems
now that our innocent questions about our differences were kind of nice, kind of
Q: You have a reputation, even in a business full of liberals, of being even more so.
Did anything else happen to you as a child to help shape your attitudes and
A: Well, first off, I don't really have any politics but I sure have some attitudes. That
same year that we lived in the big old white house my daddy decided to hit the
road for a while, so he took every single penny we had in the house and just left.
We didn't have any money, and my momma didn't have a job, and I think she
was just too proud to ask any of her relatives for help. I remember we ate a lot of
cornbread and buttermilk. I distinctly remember at least a few times being
hungry. One of the old women-I think there were a couple of them in that little
cluster of houses where the black folks lived-must have heard about it. Maybe it
was something we said or did. And they started showing up at my momma's door
with food. It wasn't much, sometimes it was just corn, but it was something. That
will alter your attitudes about race, something that no amount of pontificating by
the George Wallaces of the world will ever be able to change.
Q: It seems to me that the current racial climate would be disappointing to you.
A: It is, very much so. I hear Farrakahn [Minister of the Nation of Islam] and David
Duke, Al Sharpton and that fat boy-what's his name again? You know, the loud
mouth . [Rush] Limbaugh. For some reason when I hear his name it always
makes me think of cheese-and I hear them spouting off in their own specific
varieties of racism and it makes me sick. I realize that race is more complicated
now than it was then, that affirmative action and other modern-day issues divide
us, but it ought not to be that way. Part of the problem is the economy and the
fact that there are just fewer plums on the tree for all of us to reach for, and that
is naturally going to cause friction. But I have seen people of both colors-but I
have seen the absolute worst in people of both colors-and the absolute best, and
I believe we could all get along if a few divisive loudmouth pecker-heads would
try to find a new line of work.
Q: Tell me something about your education.
A: I went to elementary schools where your ability to spit a long way, or take a
punch, was more important that the New Math. I loved to read, but I also loved to
throw rocks, ride horses, go hunting, catch fish, swim naked, kiss girls, wreck
motorcycles and act a fool ...
Q: Were you interested in journalism at all then?
A: I was an editor on my school paper, in high school, because everybody knew
journalism class was easy and you could tell the teacher you were working on a
story and instead go shoot basketball in the gym. When I edited the stories of my
reporters, I was impressed by how deadly dull they were. At this point I had
already started to read some Faulkner, and Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe, and
more popular, modern-day authors like James Clavell, and I knew it didn't have
to be that way. I knew that newspaper stories could have strong images. All we
had to do was think a little, which is hard at 17. At 17, I am convinced, I was
mildly retarded. I had no real plan for college. I remember thinking, as I neared
the end of my senior year in high school, that driving a UPS truck seemed like a
pretty good job.
Q: What happened?
A: I took one course in the fall of 1977, and it probably saved my life. I took a
feature writing course at Jacksonville State University in Alabama-we lived about
15 minutes away-and as I was doing a solidly mediocre job in that class I got a
job offer from the weekly Jacksonville News. They wanted a young person they
could pay virtually nothing to write the sports column. The only job I had ever
really had up until then was pick-and-shovel work, so I thought I was in heaven.
They paid me to write. It was like stealing ...
Q: Did you ever feel like it hurt you, not having a degree?
A: I think it hurt me more in a personal way. I regret every day the four years I could
have had learning some things. But even more than that I regret the four years I
could have had to extend my childhood a little bit. I think a lot of college students
take for granted the fact that they have been given a four-year pardon from
having to enter the real, harsh world of making a living. And I envy them ...
When I was 32 and had been working for what seemed like half my life I won a
Nieman fellowship to Harvard University, which I am sure made me the
least-educated person to ever walk into Harvard. And as much as I loved the
chance to study and to be part of that rarefied, academic world, I still long
sometimes for a Saturday night football game in Jacksonville, Alabama, or
drinking an illegal beer with people my age talking about nothing more
complicated than a history test, or women. Well, okay, women are pretty
complicated. But it didn't seem so back then. But going back to your first
question, I'm not sure what I missed in the classroom at a small southern college
was more important to me in the long run than being able to experience life in a
newsroom so early on. I guess it was a pretty fair trade.
Q: Let's move on to your Alabama jobs.
A: The ten years I spent with Alabama newspapers, before moving on down to
Florida, gave me the best foundation for big-time journalism that I could ever
imagine. I was a sportswriter at first, because it was the only job I could get. At
the Anniston Star, I covered Bear Bryant, Shug Jordan, and I covered Richard
Petty. Richard Petty once ran over my big toe. He was whipping his car into the
garage after qualifying at Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega,
and I was standing with my foot stuck out right in his way. It only hurt for a
minute, 'cause those cars have those big, soft tires. And he got out and
apologized, and told me I really ought not to have had my foot stuck out in the
But the great thing about being a sportswriter is that you get to write with
imagination, with color and detail. And I think, I really believe, that that made me
a better writer further on down the road. I was working at a paper called the
Anniston Star... when I got into a mild skirmish with my sports editor. It involved
everything short of me knocking his teeth down his throat, and the managing
editor, to get me away from him, made me a real reporter. They moved me to the
desk where I covered two rural counties. I wrote about speed-trap towns, cock
fights, a triple murder and a little place called Mars Hill, and just in general had a
ball. It occurred to my editors that I would probably be more valuable writing
about these things in a news-feature, big-picture, front-page sort of way than it
was to have me sitting in city council meetings growing calluses on my ass ... I
have never made any apologies about being the designated pretty writer.
Q: Okay. What about your first big newspaper job?
A: The Birmingham News, a sadly conservative, consistently mediocre newspaper
in the state's largest city, offered me a job in the mid '80s, and it was just a little
while until I was doing the same kind of stories there. I did series on the slow
death of Alabama's coal mining towns, on prison conditions, on truck drivers who
were killing Alabamians by the dozens because of poor regulations. A series of
stories I did on an Alabama preacher wrongly convicted of killing his wife cleared
the minister's name, but that story, while it probably helped my career, is also
probably my greatest failure, at least my greatest regret.
A: Because it was only half done. I knew through my reporting who the real killer
was, and we even raised his name in the newspaper, opening ourselves to
lawsuits if I'd been wrong. But while I did point this man out in the newspaper, it
wasn't enough to convince authorities, so he is still free, still living down in south
Q: Is [Birmingham] where you kicked in a locked door at a crime scene?
A: The was not locked.
A: It was nailed shut. And the building supervisor specifically told me that if the door
was not locked with a key-then it was okay for me to go inside. He didn't say a
damn thing about no big old ten penny nail holding it shut. And I didn't really kick
it. I just sort of nudged it with my foot. Firmly.
Q: Well, what did you find when you got inside?
A: There had been a killing by this man with a long history of mental illness. He had
been in and out of institutions and he had been released the most recent time for
reasons that were not real specific. I could see through the window that he had
spray painted what seemed to be a confession on the wall of the living room. It
turned out that wasn't what it was, but since I'd already kicked the door down I
went on inside anyway.
Q: Is it true that you once kicked a Rubbermaid trash can all the way across the
Birmingham News newsroom and took out the book editor?
A: Yes it is. I was nonplused. I love that word "nonplused."
Q: Are you prone to become hysterical and scream at editors and call them low-life
sons of bitches?
A: No, not a word of that is true. Okay, some of it is true, but not if I respect them.
And just lately, I respect the people I work for. In St. Pete I worked for some of
the best word people I could ever imagine, and while the New York Times is full
of frustrations, they're all little ones, and for the most part I've been allowed to
write the way I like to write, pick my own stories, and be proud of what I do.
Q: It sounds like the frustrations in Birmingham were bigger. Why did you leave?
A: I worked for a conservative editorship that didn't like to take many chances ...
and I was always fighting with them .... They killed a story or two, so I decided
to quit. I sent resumes to several mid-sized papers-I had won a bunch of state
and regional awards over the past several years, which mid-sized papers tend to
like-and I was lucky I had several places to pick from including St. Petersburg,
which at the time had a reputation as being a paradise for good writers. I went
and talked to Managing Editor Michael Foley, who said after a few minutes, so,
are you a pain in the ass? And I said yes. And he said, well, I don't see any
reason why we can't hire you. In March of-I think it was '89-1 went to the
Clearwater bureau of the St. Petersburg Times.
Q: They still talk about one story you did.
A: [Laughs.] What happened was, I had a run of some pretty good stories-page-one
pieces on an old woman holding out against developers, serious stories like
that-and the editors in St. Pete had already decided after just a couple of months
that they were going to put me on the state desk. But-and I'm still not sure they
didn't do this on purpose-there was still one last bullshit story that I had to do,
the kind that makes you roll your eyes and shake your head, or just hang it.
In Dunedin there had been a rash of chicken maulings by a bobcat. The editor
said, Rick, go up there to Dunedin and get the skinny on this. I did it. I didn't
whine. But I convinced myself that somehow I would make them pay. I went up
and interviewed a chicken that had survived an attack, losing only a considerable
amount of its featherage and perhaps its dignity, considering where those
feathers were torn from. I went back to the paper and wrote this lead: Mopsy has
stared into the face of death, and it is whiskered. I thought that they would say,
okay, we finally pushed the boy too far, but instead I got a note saying, great
lead. I always have had an odd talent for diving head first into the septic tank
and coming up smelling like roses.
Q: What was your first state staff job?
A: I was a state reporter covering southern Florida and had the freedom to roam
around the southern half of the state, excluding Miami. I wrote about poachers,
mercury poisoning in the Everglades, and the editors brought me back to St.
Pete to write about the birth and death of Siamese twin babies.
Q: You won the American Society of Newspaper Editors award for that story.
A: That was the Distinguished Writing Award for non-deadline. Mike Foley called me
up and said, well, Butt Plug, you've won a big one. Foley always had remarkable
tact in situations like that.
Q: But most of your time at the paper was spent in Miami.
A: Yeah, at least three quarters. I didn't speak any Spanish, and I'd never even
been to Miami, but I begged them for the job. Miami in the early '90s had to be
the most exotic, dangerous and weirdly beautiful city in the country, and I just
had to do it. John Costa, the deputy managing editor, in announcing the move
wrote: one of them, Bragg or Miami, will have to give.
I rented a house in Coconut Grove and the first night someone stole my stereo,
but that was OK. I think for the first time in my life, I had found a home. I loved
Miami the way some men love women. I wrote about Haitian refugees,
anti-Castro guerillas, brutal cops, pitiful crack whores, riots-I still don't hear real
good out of one ear because I got hit with a chunk of concrete during a riot in
Liberty City-and black churches as a haven from the violence of inner-city Miami.
I traded my 1966 convertible Mustang for a 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible ...
I worked my ass off on good stories and spent my weekends fishing, or bobbing
up and down in the water on South Beach. It was probably the happiest time in
Q: But the [St. Petersburg Times] used you on stories that demanded more tough
reporting than pretty writing.
A: Well, I think there's a bias in this business that if you're a good writer you're
nothing but a pretty pen, and if you're a good reporter you can't possibly be a
good writer, and that's kind of silly. There is no good writing without really, really
good reporting. I know I'm not the first one to say that but it's true.
As the build-up for the Gulf War began, the editors in St. Pete decided they
should send me for a while, even just a little while, to write about it ... I wrote
about Jewish soldiers who were forced to hide their religion-some of them even
had to say their prayers in a closet, and had the Star of David removed from their
dog tags-so as not to offend their Saudi hosts. The U. S. military did not like that
story worth a goddamn, not that I gave a shit, because I was going home
Q: At the time a lot of Americans didn't think any American fighting men should be
there. How'd you feel about it?
A: On the way to Saudi Arabia, I bumped into a middle-aged sergeant who was
leading a platoon of men who would ultimately fight in the war . and he talked
about how ridiculous it was for him to be risking his life in a war over cheap
gasoline. He said, I guess I'm here to protect the American right to drive a
Cadillac. I know this man was not a coward because he'd fought in Vietnam and
was only months away from full retirement. He could have gotten out of his duty
but now, in a completely different time in his life, he was risking it again. I
remember thinking that I was seeing what true guts was about. He didn't have
blind devotion to his country or any cause, but he was doing it anyway because it
was better, to him at least, than any job he would've had outside the military ...
One more thing sticks in my mind about that sergeant. American journalists had
been fond of reporting that this was a dangerous war for Americans because so
many of the Iraqi soldiers were said to be zealots and not afraid to die. When I
asked the American sergeant what he thought of that he just laughed out loud.
Son, everybody's afraid to die.
Q: Why did they send you to Haiti?
A: Because I wanted to go. I had always had a moth-to-a-flame fascination with
Haiti, and when President Aristide was forced to leave the country and they killed
so many people that first night, I thought we had to go and explain it, somehow.
Here is a nation just a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida ... that was
filling Florida up with refugees on rickety rafts. I just thought it was important.
The story I wrote from Haiti I think is still one of the best things I've ever done. It's
a little purple, but that's all right. I saw so much death that I foolishly thought I
would never see anything like it again ...
Q: What did seeing that much death do to you?
A: It's not easy to talk about, but I can talk about it. You don't have to go to Haiti to
discover what death is about. You see it in the breezeways of housing projects in
poor neighborhoods in places like New Orleans and Birmingham, and certainly
Miami. Especially Miami. In Haiti, it was just more common. And the
commonness of it hammers at your shell.
The first night I spent in Haiti I spent in the city cemetery, where hundreds of
thousands of crypts rise like a little city up out of the grounds, where hundreds of
thousands more are buried underneath. I remember interviewing this young man
who had gone searching for his father's crypt-his father had been killed by
Haitian soldiers on a lark, purely because he happened to be standing in a
doorway, an easy target-but there had been so many burials in the past few
days the crypt keeper could not remember where he had buried him. I wrote a
line that said how the young man climbed to the top of a cross on one of the
crypts, hoping he could spot his father's burial place from there, but all he could
see was his own future: a life in the slums nearby ending in an anonymous death
in this place. I guess the most accurate way to describe what Haiti did to me,
was it broke my heart.
Q: Were you in any danger?
A: Not really. The danger is always that you'll be caught in the middle of the warring
factions. Sometimes people just get in the way of a bullet. It happens in housing
projects all the time ... I got roughed up a little: a couple of times in crowds and
once at the airport, leaving. But it was no big thing. I slept in a Holiday Inn, for
God's sake, and if it hadn't been for the bodies outside in the street in the
morning, I could have been in Fort Meyers.
Q: So the Haitians you interviewed were in more danger than you. How did you get
their stories without putting them at risk?
A: The great danger in a place like that is that you'll get somebody else killed
because you're clumsy, because you assume that you're just slicker and smarter
than you are ... I interviewed people in pitch-black rooms. I interviewed people
by having them lie down on the floor of my Jeep as I drove in circles around the
city. And I tried to do everything I could to protect those people. Well, let's put it
this way. I can live with a lot, but I don't think I could live with the fact that I got
somebody killed because I was just stupid.
Q: Were you criticized at home because you didn't name all of your sources?
A: The people who criticized me-one guy said I was personally responsible for the
invasion of Haiti because Clinton quoted from my stories in his State of the Union
address-have never been anywhere even remotely close to that kind of story, or
to that kind of danger. I'm not trying to make it sound melodramatic, because
while I did get shot at there, I did not have-as so many Haitians had-some
soldier walk up to my head, stick a pistol to my head and kill me at point-blank
range. I don't like unnamed sources, and I very rarely use them. I probably use
them less than one half of one percent-probably much less than that. But in Haiti
it was the only way to protect those people ... invariably the only people who
ask those questions would pee in their pants and cry for their momma the first
time some bad man starting pumping a twelve-gauge shotgun into the crowd that
surrounds you. I don't think those people have ever seen the sheer abject terror
that comes into the eyes of people who realize if they don't run fast enough and
far enough, they're going to die right there. And if they don't cover their face soon
enough, somebody will come to their house later that night and rape their
children, murder their wife and drag them off to kill them. I hope this doesn't
sound a little thin-skinned, but I have never had much respect for people in this
business who are all mouth. My daddy would have said, you don't have enough
ass in your britches to say that about me. Pat Buchanan called me a liar on
national TV. He said I had exaggerated the killing. Of course the closest he's
ever come to Haiti was, well, he ain't never come nowhere close to Haiti.
But the editors of the New York Times liked [the stories], and they put them on
the front page, and I respect the editors of the New York Times a hell of a lot
more than I do some Republican pun'kin head who thinks America would be a
great place if everybody was just white, Christian and belonged to the country
I think stories have an impact. I doubt seriously if they forced the invasion of
Haiti. I think that a steady drumbeat of stories about human rights abuses in Haiti
in the New York Times definitely influences policy makers. I think that's a given
and it's something I've never been really comfortable with. I'm still not really
comfortable with it.
Q: What about it makes you uncomfortable?
A: Well I guess it's a trade. We like it when our stories do some good. We like it
when our stories bring about change in a good way. I liked it when the story I did
about the old washerwoman in Mississippi resulted in hundreds of thousands of
dollars in contributions for scholarships for poor children. So I guess I have to
accept the fact that these stories can have other consequences. We put this stuff
in the paper because we have proved as sufficiently as we can that it's true. At
the Talladega Daily Home, if I misspelled a running back's name, all I was going
to do was make his momma mad at me. If I get something wrong in the New
York Times, well let's just say the consequences are greater.
Q: I want to go back to Florida, and why that state in general and Miami in particular
was such an important place in your career so far.
A: I think it's just because this state, bar none, is the best place to be a reporter in
this country. Hell, maybe in any country. The variety of people and the variety of
problems coupled with geography make it the best state for stories. I believe that
Florida is where I really flexed what little bit of literary muscle I have. And I think it
made me a better writer, and it sure as hell made me a better reporter. And if you
think about Florida as this very dysfunctional, dangerous, but mildly entertaining
family, then Miami has to be the uncle they keep chained in the attic.
My very first day in Miami, Nelson Mandela was being honored by a union group
there and the town-which is split along racial lines in the best of times-had come
apart completely over his visit. Black folks of course worshiped him for the
obvious reasons, but the Cubans, angry that he had once embraced Fidel
Castro, were seething. I drove out to Miami Beach, parked my car, and the very
first thing I saw when I looked up was Cuban folks and black folks picking up
dried horse manure from the street and throwing it at each other. The horse
manure was there because the city had decided it was necessary to use
mounted police officers to try to keep them from killing each other. I went and got
myself a can of pineapple juice at a little bodega, walked back to the steps of the
civic center, propped myself up comfortable and settled in for the show. I thought
to myself, Lord, I have found me a home. This is the honest-to-God truth.
And someone at the Nieman Foundation program at Harvard I'm still not real
sure who it was mailed me an application and a blank envelope. All my life I
had carried a chip on my shoulder because of my lack of education, or at least
my lack of a formal education. I had spent my career proving that I didn't need it.
So it was kind of ironic that I would want it after I felt I'd finally showed I could do
without it. To make the proverbial long story short, I applied for it and was one of
the 12 American fellows selected for '92-'93.
It took me out of Miami the same week that Hurricane Andrew slammed in. It
destroyed my little house and many of my belongings. I don't believe in signs, but
this would have been a pretty powerful one that it was time to move on.
Q: So how was Harvard?
A: Weird. And delightful. Here I was, in the best university in the whole world and it
was free and open to me for a whole year. Some people spend their Nieman
years just hanging out, or writing their memoirs, but I studied. I studied
African-American history and culture, Latin American history and culture,
Afro-Caribbean history and culture, women's history, U. S. diplomacy, religion,
and I shot a lot of basketball. But mostly what I did was talk to [Bill] Kovich [Head
of the Nieman Foundation], the smartest man I know. We talked about
newspapers and about writing and about life as we know it. I didn't know my own
father all that well, but there were times when I wished he had been Kovich ...
Q: So what did you do when you got back to the St. Petersburg Times?
A: Paul Tash, the new executive editor, made the decision to shut down the Miami
bureau and promoted me-at least I guess that's what it was-to roving national
reporter. What they said was, do whatever you want to, find the best stories you
can, and we'll let you go. And that's what they did. I spent a month on the Navajo
Indian reservation writing about the hantavirus and about the Navajo uranium
miners who were slowly dying of cancer. I went to a small town in Texas to write
about the last black resident who was being threatened by the Klan, and
ultimately would be run out of town. I covered the floods in the Midwest.
Q: You were only there a few months. What happened?
A: Two phone calls that summer changed my life profoundly: one from the Los
Angeles Times, the other from the New York Times. They offered me jobs at
exactly the same time, leaving me with what some people called a delicious
decision to make, but looking back on it, it was pure hell ...
Bill Kovich and Howell Raines, a fellow Alabamian, both told me that I should go
to New York. They affirmed what the Times had told me, that the Times was
changing, that they were letting at least some of their reporters write, really write,
and were not trying to turn everybody into a good little New York Times reporter
in a bow tie and horned-rimmed glasses. Kovich called me at home one night
and said, you only get one chance in life to pitch for the Yankees or sing at the
Met. Raines just puffed up and said, boy, this train don't swing by people like you
and me more than once. So I figured whatever decision I made was do-or-die. I
decided to go to L. A., which would be one of many large mistakes in my life.
Q: What happened?
A: The short version: they didn't keep their promises. I knew immediately that this
dream job would not work out in a practical sense. So I quit. After three weeks. I
called The New York Times and said I had made a mistake. They left me waiting
for seven minutes while they talked amongst themselves, I guess. Then the
hiring editor called me back and said the same job was still open if I wanted it. So
I took it and moved to New York in January 1994. Maybe I should point out here
that this was the coldest winter they'd had in years.
Q: And how did you fit in?
A: From the beginning, it was almost like a dream. They let me chase my own ideas
and let me write. I wrote about the homeless, about inner-city killings that left the
walls of buildings covered with testimonials to the dead, and just in general,
wrote about the saddest, most poignant corners of the city. After six months of
this, they sent me to Haiti to cover the human rights abuses and the build-up to
the return of Aristide and the possibility of an armed intervention. Again, I wrote
about the killing and worse the people there inflicted on each other. Got five-or
got four-death threats, and slept poorly. I got a call from the national editor telling
me not only that they were going to send me back South, to cover the Deep
South for the New York Times but that they would have done it even sooner
except that I was preoccupied with Haiti. So in my first nine months, I'd worked
on the metro, national and foreign desks, had my stories nominated for Pulitzers,
and won several smaller awards. I don't guess things could have gone much
I wouldn't trade a Pulitzer for my Nieman fellowship, and the year of free and
clear life it gave me, and I wouldn't trade it for the bully pulpit that I have at The
New York Times, where my stories can actually alter people's lives for good.
Stepping over bodies someplace kind of makes winning a plaque-even if it's this
very special one-well, let's just say it puts it in perspective. I'd still love to win it,
but I wish I could have won it back when I was still young enough to use it to get
Q: I can't believe you just said that.
A: What? I've done waxed philosophical about journalism, got all net up. I could
have said used it to snake babes.
Q: At your writing seminars you talk about how newspapers are digging their own
graves with short, cute stories. Does it bother you that you have devoted so
much of your life to a profession that some people believe is dying?
A: It's only dying because it is so poorly managed. While it's true people read less,
while it's true that it is difficult to marry up with technology, I think the main
reason that so many newspapers are failing is because they're being run without
imagination, with an eye only on profits and just generally stump-dumb and
butt-stupid. You've got large newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
trying to compete with television with short, quick, dumb piece-of-shit stories. And
you've got small newspapers all over the country trying to emulate USA TODAY,
a newspaper that, at its very best, is bad. Well we can't be TV and we ought not
try to be. We've never really reached ignorant, vapid people with newspapers. To
read newspapers you've got to want to read, and we insult those people every
day with the crap we turn out. Good writing has given away to cute writing, and a
clever turn of phrase seems to be worth more than an investigative piece or a
heart-felt feature. I've had cab drivers in Atlanta talk about how there was nothing
to read in the J-C., while doctors and other professionals won't even pick it up.
My doctor, who is a gastro-whatever it is, what do you call a gut doctor?-anyway,
he said very appropriately, it don't have no guts. I thought that was funny ...
I got into this business at the time of Watergate, in a time when investigative
journalism was entering a really great era. And I followed it through my whole
youth, and now I'll ride it out into old age. And if I really am in the end of a dying
business-let me put it this way: seeing the end of this business-then that's fine.
'Cause I'm not real sure it can go much further down the toilet. There is such a
thing as mercy killing.
Q: So what would you do different?
A: That's part of the problem. I'm too selfish to ever want to go into management. A
story is what it's all really about and that's all I really care about. The thought of
running some small newspaper somewhere, of trying to put together the kind of
newsroom where reporters are excited about their work you know, the kind of
place where they slap high fives when they come back from pinning the city
councilman up against the wall with their question, or writing a lead so good they
have to get up from their terminal and walk it off-that is very seductive. But
anyway, in a practical-or at least as practical as I can be-answer to that
question, the first and most obvious thing is to turn the attention of your
newspapers away from bar graphs and pie charts and all this other shit, away
from what one paper refers to as "containables"-those little short pieces that
don't have to jump from the front page-and line up every single copy editor or
slot man or backfield editor who believes any story can be told in eight inches or
less and slap the mortal shit out of them.
I'd encourage writers to take chances not in their reporting so much as in their
writing. Everybody is not a stylist. Everybody is not intended to write like
Tennessee Williams after a half-bottle of whiskey. But one reason that there is so
much damn deadly-dull writing in this country is because writers are being told by
their editors to "save it for your novel."
Q: You've lived in 14 cities in about as many years. Do you like living that way?
A: I think I used to. I'm like everyone else, when you get to be about 36. I'd sort of
like to have a puppy, but it would starve. I'd like to think about maybe buying a
house, but I wouldn't get to live in it. It'll change someday.
A: When I'm old.
Q: What are you going to do when you're old?
A: I'm going to try to have a puppy.
[End of the interview.]