In the annals of journalistic crimes and misdemeanours, there are plagiarists, there are fabulists – and then there is Jayson Blair. In dozens of articles penned for the national desk of The New York Times between October, 2001, and May, 2003, Blair lied, fabricated, and plagiarized with jaw-dropping chutzpah. When he was finally caught by a reporter at another paper whose work he had copied, the fallout brought down the Times' top two editors. But though the Blair scandal was exhaustively covered as it unfolded, the new documentary A Fragile Trust, directed by Samantha Grant, argues it has been seriously misunderstood.
Why did you want to make this film?
I started thinking about this in 2006, when I was at the University of Berkeley graduate school of journalism. Not only was it a great yarn – the narrative itself is so fascinating, it's gripping, it's got a great central character, there's a built-in arc – but it provides a really excellent platform to talk about some of these issues that I think can be difficult for the general public to engage with. Media ethics, media literacy, the impact of the shift from print to digital media.
You interviewed Blair three times, most recently just over a year ago. Some film reviewers are frustrated that he doesn't seem very remorseful.
I was hopeful that he would come across as a bit more penitent. It would allow for some character development. As a person, you kind of want to see that – as a viewer and as a filmmaker, it's satisfying. I wished that was the story, but the truth is that is not what the story was.
Many reports about the scandal portrayed Blair as an enthusiastic young reporter who was adept at office politics, and suggested race played a large role in his rise: He was seen as a protégé of the African-American managing editor Gerald Boyd, and the Alabama-born executive editor Howell Raines handled him with kid gloves because of "white Southern guilt."
Every major network was covering it, there was so much media – I think it's very hard to get a big picture of what is happening, as a whole. And after the fact, when things have quieted down, you can sort of sift through all the material to see what the larger messages were. I think that this whole [false] thing about affirmative action and about Gerald Boyd being Jayson Blair's mentor and how that spread – all these other things kind of got bound up in this story.
The debacle in fact seems to have been the result of an unusual confluence of circumstances: a mentally unstable individual – Blair says he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder – was given too much responsibility, with too little oversight, at a moment when the technology that enabled his deceptions was better understood by himself than his bosses. So, are there wider lessons?
I think a lot of people lost a lot of faith in journalism as a whole, as a profession, because of what Jayson did. He's seen as the poster child for plagiarism, for everything wrong with journalism. But I think people deserve to know this was a very unusual thing. It took a very special set of circumstances for someone to be able to perpetrate this kind of extensive fraud.
Still, in the Director's Statement on your website you say that plagiarism is very common these days, enabled in part by the explosion in online publishing. But some argue that online tools are actually making it easier to catch plagiarism.
I don't know if it's more common or if we're just hearing about it more. There was one case not long ago – the guy's name escapes me now, but he was writing for a blog at a major newspaper, and he was lifting some information from other reporting, and his explanation was we're in a 'post-attribution era.' And this is just startling.
The other message I want to get across is: While I think the democratization of the media is a great thing, and it's great to have so many more voices in the mix, we need big journalism institutions like The New York Times now more than ever before, because individuals cannot take on huge institutions like the government, like corporations, by themselves. In my film I do a profile of one of those big journalism institutions, and I show that it's run by human beings, and human beings are inherently flawed, and therefore these institutions are inherently flawed.
Blair now works as a "personal life coach." Your film says he claims his firm has about 200 clients. Were you able to confirm?
I was not able to confirm that – that's why I phrased it that way. I went to his office, I saw the other people that were working there, but he would not allow me to meet or speak with any of his clients. He said it would be an invasion of their privacy, it's too much to ask them, they're his clients, blah blah.
Not even off-camera?
He's very guarded. Even though he did give me the interviews, he was very conscious of the access he was giving me.
Samantha Grant will appear at the three Doc Soup screenings of A Fragile Trust in Toronto this week, on Wednesday and Thursday.
This interview has been condensed and edited.