Documentary Revisits the Jayson Blair Scandal
A curious shift occurs towards the end of the new documentary “A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times,” premiering on PBS on Monday, May 5. Up to this point in Samantha Grant’s thorough, thoughtful look back at the notorious newspaper scandal, Blair has come across largely as a troubled sufferer—a victim of mental illness who made a series of egregiously terrible judgment calls while coping with intense workplace pressure. In a major coup, producer and director Grant has managed to wrangle an exclusive interview with Blair, who even provided the filmmakers access to his private email account from the period leading up to his 2003 departure from The New York Times. On camera, Blair is a sober, soft-spoken fellow who gives off an older-but-wiser vibe as he analyzes his past journalistic misdeeds (plagiarism, outright fabrication), accepting culpability while at the same time attributing his behavior in part to the effects of bipolar disorder, aggravated by substance abuse.
But then the documentary reaches the point in the story where Blair, as a disgraced ex-reporter, starts pitching a tell-all to book publishers. The book, “Burning Down My Masters’ House,” was published in 2004. Suddenly, we see him discussing the book with Larry King (“The main reason I wrote the book, Larry…”), Howard Kurtz (“It’s part of the process of healing for me to go through this trial by fire…”), and Chris Matthews (“I think I’m going to write a novel [next]….”). And we see him offer wisdom, supposedly grounded in his own experience, on the speaking circuit. (He currently works as a “certified life coach” in Virginia.) Suddenly, Blair starts to seem like a sociopath—a sociopath who knows the value of spin. And you can’t help but wonder: Was his participation in Grant’s documentary just another creepily devious attempt at spin?
Fortunately, the Blair interview is only one source of material for “A Fragile Trust,” which is airing as part of the PBS series Independent Lens. (The air time is 10:00-11:30 pm ET on May 5; check local listings.) Grant has also interviewed a large group of Blair’s former colleagues, including Howell Raines, who was The New York Times’s Executive Editor during the Blair crisis, and who left the paper in the crisis’s aftermath. Interviewee William Schmidt, who as the paper’s Associate Managing Editor was in charge of personnel issues and disciplinary actions at the time of the scandal, is able to contribute some satisfying tick-tock details about what happened when, as Blair’s journalistic crimes came to light.
Complementing the spoken insights are a rich collection of images, including photographs and video of news events that Blair was assigned to cover; footage from television reports on the 2003 scandal; photos of Blair as a child; and even part of an old recruiting video for the University of Maryland (Blair’s alma mater) that appears to show the cub reporter walking to work in his earliest days at The New York Times.
Two visual leitmotif intensify the documentary’s somber mood while also underscoring a key theme. Occasionally, bits of simple animation appear (an animated sequence depicts Blair making a phone call during the crisis, for instance), the contour lines scrawled white against a field of black. At other times, we see what appear to be photographic negatives of newspaper articles, the letters and photo shapes bright against a black background. The white-on-black shapes tie into the theme of contrasts and reversals of expectation: Readers of Blair’s articles found lies where they expected to find truth, and deceit where they expected to find integrity.
The black-and-white images in the documentary also echo the racial issues that have seemed, to some, to eddy beneath the surface of the Blair imbroglio: Blair is African-American, and some have wondered whether he was given too much leeway, and too many second chances, at the Gray Lady because the paper was trying to make its staff more diverse. “A Fragile Trust” raises this question, but it also asks another in passing: When reporter Stephen Glass (who is white) was found to have fabricated articles for The New Republic in the 1990s, why didn’t his race become an issue? Does the discrepancy between the way we discuss the two cases say something about our own assumptions and biases?
Ultimately, of course, there are questions that “A Fragile Trust” cannot fully answer: What was really going on in Jayson Blair’s head when he plagiarized and invented reporting? What is going on in his head now? Why—in the final analysis—was he able to get away with so much journalistic wrongdoing? Over a decade after the scandal broke, such questions still exert a tantalizing pull.
About the Author
Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.