Jayson Blair. It’s a name that evokes two immediate responses: lies and The New York Times. More than 10 years after the biggest ethics debacle in journalism’s modern day, Samantha Grant is trying to show that there’s much more to the story. Her film, “A Fragile Trust,” chronicles the lead-up to and aftermath of the “Blair Affair.” It’s been making the rounds at film festivals in 2013 and will receive wider release and distribution in 2014.
Grant is passionate about the topic and about highlighting the case as an oddity among journalism institutions. The New York Times took some much deserved heat for its handling, but Grant shows in the film that what you may remember being reported about the scandal isn’t necessarily the full story — or completely accurate. Though it’s gaining traction now, the film traces its roots back seven years to Grant’s graduate work at UC Berkeley, a formal journalism education she started at age 30.
Why this film, why now?
When I started working on the film, it just seemed like a documentary filmmaker’s dream in terms of a strong character and arc. And there’s a larger cultural story. All these issues that come up in the film can come up in terms of what is discussed. Media literacy and media ethics don’t usually come up in the public.
You call yourself a “third-generation journalist.” Did your parents try to convince you into or dissuade you from the industry? Or did you pick up journalism on your own?
(My dad) worked very hard. He was an old school, hard-drinking, hard-working, word-slinging journalist. He wasn’t very healthy. He died when I was 5.
This idea of what it meant to be a journalist loomed wide in my mind. His father also worked at the Brooklyn Eagle. I would always hear from my mom, “Wow, you’re just like your dad.” As a young child, it didn’t feel like something I wanted to do. He would work all night long until the sun rose. It just seemed kind of crazy to me. I thought I was going to be a doctor. I got to college and started studying pre-med and was not finding the kind of meaning.
Something that’s worth thinking about that’s come up as I’ve been working on this film is the question of whether an independent filmmaker is a journalist. I do consider the work that I do journalism. I think my passion for journalism has certainly grown over the course of making this film. It has only made me love journalism even more. It has enhanced my experience.
Did you learn anything particularly surprising or shocking about Jayson Blair that the public record didn’t already show?
There are two. This incident is not representative of journalism. This incident of the Blair Affair is of a very specific, isolated moment that was the result of everything happening at one time (at the Times). Second, it was reported that Gerald Boyd was Jayson Blair’s mentor, and that was incorrect.
Gerald Boyd was the managing editor at the time this scandal happened. He was the first African-American managing editor at the Times. When the scandal happened, I’m not even sure where it came from, people started reporting that he had been a personal mentor (to Blair). It was an assumption that was made perhaps because both are African-American in a predominately white institution. Based on everything I’ve learned, that is not the case.
(Gerald) losing his job at the Times was devastating. According to his widow, the fact that he was linked to Jayson Blair was even more devastating. That was something that completely crushed him. (He died before Samantha Grant was able to interview him for the film.)
What lessons are we to take from, as you call it, the “Blair Affair”?
One of the things people should think about is if you are a part of the reading public, and you come across something that is not correct, you should let the publication know. You should take an active role in correcting the information. As I say, Jayson Blair is an anomaly. He is not representative of 99.9 percent of journalists out there.
I think we should also remember that we need institutional journalism now more than ever. And institutions like The New York Times are essential. It takes an institution to go up against a government or corporations. An individual can’t, or it’s very hard to do on their own. The film paints a portrait of this very hallowed institution and shows that it has some flaws, and it’s run by humans, who are inherently flawed.
You’re also doing an interactive game, Decisions on Deadline. What’s that about?
An educational journalism game where players are reporters working on a story and are faced with ethical dilemmas through the course of their work. And depending on what they decide, the game changes. It’s an online game and in the real world.
What do you think needs to be done to plagiarists and fabricators in journalism? Should it be a one-strike-and-you’re-out offense? Is it situational?
I’m glad that I’m not an editor and that I don’t have to make these decisions. Outright plagiarism and fabrication are prohibited. That being said, I don’t really know. I’m not sure what the appropriate response is.
It’s no secret that plagiarists in journalism or just any academic setting are scorned, fired, flunked, etc. But people still do it. Does that suggest that such “death sentences” aren’t an effective deterrence?
It’s really a complicated question, because the question really is, why do people lie? And people have very different reasons, excuses and motivations for that behavior. And why do people do it? I have no idea. Journalists are human beings, and that’s complicated.
There’s a conventional wisdom that suggests plagiarism is easier or more widespread now because of so much free, quickly available information online. But isn’t that a little anecdotal? Isn’t it also far easier and faster to detect for the same reason?
Right. There’s no question that there’s more reporting about plagiarism now. But there’s also more reporting about everything else now. As far as it being easier to detect, that’s true. I think the widespread deception that took place in the Blair case would be very hard these days. And the circumstances were very specific to that moment in time.
I’m curious what you think of Stephen Glass, perhaps the second most infamous plagiarism/fabulism case behind Blair. Glass has graduated from law school and is petitioning the state of California to let him practice law in the state. Should he be a lawyer?
(Laughs) Can you just write “laughter”? I’m going to stay away from that hot potato.
This has nothing to do with the film, but I’m always curious: If you could get news from only one source for the rest of your life, what would it be?
This is a very interesting answer. The truth is, I always go to The New York Times first. I live in California, and I still get it in print and read it online. I believe in institutional journalism, and I believe in the Times.
Tagged under: Generation J