Documentary Examines NYT's Jayson Blair Scandal

Thursday, 10 Apr 2014 01:41 PM

By Joe Battaglia

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A new documentary unveils the scope of plagiarism perpetrated by a disgraced journalist and how it tarnished the reputation of The New York Times and brought down two of its top editors.

Filmmaker Samantha Grant's documentary "A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times," explores the scandal while conveying the evils of plagiarism, showcasing the vulnerabilities of the best newspaper in the world, and shedding light on affirmative action.

In 2003, it was revealed that Blair, a 27-year-old mentally-ill, drug-addicted, over-his-head African American reporter had cavalierly plagiarized articles, made up sources and provided on-site coverage while never leaving his apartment on lead assignments for the Times. The controversy was exacerbated when the newspaper was accused of ignoring Blair's behavior in order to maintain staff diversity.

Story continues below video.



"A Fragile Trust" reveals that Blair's five years at the Times, one as an intern and four as a reporter, were marked by egregious practices. He had been accused of plagiarizing The Washington Post; had lied that a cousin had died on 9/11 to get out of contributing to the Times' "Portraits of Grief" series; had a well-known drinking problem; and wrote stories riddled with factual errors.

In The Times' 7,239-word article outing Blair in 2003, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor at the time, is said to have written a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators in 2002 that read: ''We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.''

That didn’t happen.

After receiving a reprimand and taking personal leave, Blair was named the paper's lead reporter on the Washington sniper case. Much of his work on this assignment proved to be fabricated.

On Oct. 30, 2002, for example, Blair quoted unnamed officials as saying police authorities botched the interrogation of suspect John Muhammad, who was about to confess, and named lawyers as having witnessed the interrogation. All of these claims were debunked.

In a Feb. 10, 2003 article, Blair claimed to be in Washington when he had never left his Park Slope apartment, stole quotes from a Washington Post story and made up others.

These and other examples are examined  in "A Fragile Trust" through extensive anecdotes and interviews with Blair; Howell Raines, the executive editor fired over the scandal; journalist Macarena Hernandez, who was a target of Blair's plagiarism; and Times reporter Lena Williams, who analyzes the role race played in Blair's handling and the subsequent fallout.

According to a review in The Village Voice, when Blair is asked why he did it he says, "I don't have a good answer for the question," but goes on to discuss pressure to produce at the Times, his depression and bipolar disorder, cocaine abuse, the way his editors "begged and pleaded with me to turn that story around in a matter of days," and a culture at the Times that made it an easy scam to perpetrate.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Grant warns that the Blair's accounts should be taken "with a grain of salt."

The film premieres May 5 on PBS' "Independent Lens."

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