A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times, a portrait of “the most infamous serial plagiarist of our time,” will premiere on PBS tonight, May 5, 2014 at 10pm, as part of the network’s Independent Lens series, hosted by Stanley Tucci. Check local listings for your local PBS affiliate.
Directed and produced by Samantha Grant, A Fragile Trust follows the investigation of the huge scandal – which rocked the world of journalism – that journalist Jayson Blair was at the culprit, when he was found out to have plagiarized the work of other reporters and incorporated false reports into his very own dozens of published stories. There have been many plagiarism scandals that have caused a stir in recent decades, most notably Stephen Glass’s antics at The New Republic in the mid 90s, but few have had the kind of ethical, political, and racial elements that are explored in director Samantha Grant’s A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times.
Blair, of course, was the 27-year-old cub reporter revealed in 2003 to have plagiarised and/or fabricated over half of the 73 articles he’d written during his four years working at the Times. When the dust had settled, the Pulitzer-prize winning publication would see not only the resignation of Blair and head editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, but also an onslaught of criticism from a reading public that had believed in the integrity of the paper’s motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
The documentary begins with the obvious question, why did you do it, posed to a now 37-year old Blair whose large, melancholy eyes seem to appeal desperately for sympathy to an incredulous viewer throughout the film. Blair discusses his cocaine habit, his bouts of extreme mania and crippling depression, and the fact that before things got out of hand, he really had wanted to help people through his work.
Amidst the static of Blair’s excuses and explanations, of what we think we may know about the scandal, A Fragile Trust asks not simply why but how? How were Blair’s numerous transgressions – drug and alcohol abuse, increasingly erratic behavior (later attributed to bipolarism), shoddy reporting, and blatant lies – allowed to go on for so long? Through the use of effectively integrated archival news footage and candid interviews with Blair, Raines, and a host of other players who knew or worked with the disgraced newsman, Grant paints a fascinating portrait of a talented but disturbed, insecure (and possibly sociopathic) young man who spun a web of lies so thick his falsehoods soon became indistinguishable from his reality.
Grant chronicles Blair’s idyllic, middle-class upbringing, his passion for journalism that began in high school and intensified in college, and his 1999 internship at the Times. It’s when we get to the Times and more specifically the climate of the paper during the early aughts that things really begin to pick up. This was an era when new executive and managing editors Raines and Boyd were criticized for their relentless, autocratic management style, a time when 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars intensified the pace of reporting at the newspaper, a time when the impact of the internet on print-media was only just beginning to be acknowledged.
The inclusion and thorough exploration of these threads is important, because they point to a bigger-picture, placing Blair’s actions in a very specific, very significant context, a context that goes beyond the initial titillation of the “scandal” and ultimately deepens the story that’s being told.
Indeed, the most interesting explorations in the documentary are not so much about Blair himself or what he did, but the racial tensions surrounding the controversy. Lena Williams, a Times senior-writer interviewed in the film, points out aptly, “A black person cannot be involved in anything without it being about race.” Blair himself has very little to say about how race played a role in his treatment during and after the scandal erupted (his inevitable tell-all book was, however, provocatively titled Burning Down My Master’s House).
Still, insight from his editors and colleagues is compelling, such as discussions of how the diversity internship that got him into the Times building was a “failure of affirmative action,” or Raines’s assertion that him being initially lenient on Blair despite numerous corrections on his early work was not a symptom of “Southern guilt” (Raines is from Alabama).
By the end of the documentary, Grant has laid out all the pieces in an engaging, comprehensive way, neither absolving or sympathizing with Blair nor seeking to disregard the culpability of others in what happened. The choice, ultimately, is left to us to decide how we feel, to create our own stories and narratives about what went wrong. But despite the sense of ambiguity, the film’s title still rings astoundingly true, leaving us in its final moments to contemplate our own desire and need to trust, and to believe.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.