One year after the New York Times received seven Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of 9/11, Jayson Blair, a New York Times journalist was caught serially plagiarizing the work of other reporters and fabricating the facts of countless stories. The details of the scandal and the aftermath are documented in A Fragile Trust, a documentary shown during the 2013 Starz Denver Film Festival. This provocative film explores the events that led up to Blair being exposed, the subsequent, and arguably ongoing, fallout and all of the players involved – including in-depth interviews with Jayson Blair himself.
I sat down with Samantha Grant, the film’s Director and Producer while she was in Denver to learn more.
Here is a bit of what she had to say.
Why do you think Jayson Blair did this?
I think, as he says, there is a soup of reasons. The fact that he is mentally ill is not what made him lie, and he, himself, says that. Mental illness may make your lies bigger or more extreme, but it is not going to make you lie. That has more to do with who you are.
I think the need to lie is an inherent character flaw, and I think, for him that comes from a sense of incompetence. He felt that he was sort of an impostor; that he did not deserve to be at the New York Times, even though what he was capable of was good enough for him to be there.
His writing had a lot of problems. It was done hastily and sloppily. I think if he had been able to contain himself, he had the support, guidance and faith of the people inside the New York Times. He could have turned it into a fantastic career. But who is to say, because it came out that he was lying before he even got to the Times.
I don’t think it was the pressure and incompetence of the systems.. I think the pressure there gave him a reason, but he would have found a reason anyway. The system wide breakdown in communications at the Times allowed this to go on for as long as it did without detection.
How did the New York Times let this happen? Don’t they fact check?
Fact checking is the process of one reporter essentially re-reporting the work of another reporter. You get all their information, you call their sources, and you double check their work. That does not happen anywhere in daily news. It doesn’t work that way.
There is an editorial system of checks and balances where the editor looks at the work of the reporters, but the whole system is based on trust. It is the reason the name of the film is A Fragile Trust. That trust is not just the journalist and the public, but the trust at every point along the process of journalism. All of these systems are built on trust. The trust is implicit. Why would anyone get into journalism to lie? It just doesn’t make sense.
If the whole system is based on trust and the reputation of a 130 year old newspaper is riding on this, why wasn’t he fired immediately?
At first, the problems that came up were problems of accuracy not of dishonesty. The first indication that he had been really making stuff up caused him to resign two days later, but they were planning on firing him.
How has the New York Times editorial process changed since Jayson Blair?
I will tell you how it has changed, but I will qualify it with what was said at the end of the film which was, “There is not a news organization in the world that can protect against a committed liar.” I believe that is true. Something of this scope and breadth would not be possible now. I think part of the reason it was able to go on for so long was because we were just coming into the digital age, and Jayson was relying on technology that perhaps some of his editors weren’t even aware of.
Now, when you read the New York Times or any newspaper, do you generally trust it?
I trust the media.
You really trust the media?
With the eye of someone who is a critical reader. I still get the New York Times delivered to my front door in San Francisco every day. I am from New York. I love the New York Times. In my opinion, the New York Times is the best newspaper out there. But, because it is an institution run by human beings, it has some problems just like any other big institution run by human beings.
People are complicated creatures, and when you let them build systems, the systems are going to have problems. That is part of the deal. But as far as whether I trust journalism, I believe journalists do this work because they believe they are improving the world somehow. It is a calling. I know a lot of amazing journalists.
I think journalists are the best people out there. They are information treasure hunters. Ultimately I hope people will look at this film and what they will see is not just Jayson Blair, but all the other amazing reporters in the film.
He came off in the film as the master manipulator. Were there times where you felt he was trying to manipulate you?
Absolutely. I think he thought he was manipulating me at first.
Do you believe his mental illness and drug and alcohol problems were legitimate?
Yes. I asked him to send me some documentation from his doctor’s office, which he did. I have not spoken to his psychiatrist. He would not let me speak to his psychiatrist, and I don’t even know if I could have spoken to him. I suppose he could have faked the documentation..
My answer to that is to include what he says in film. He says, I have a problem with lying, and that if he said he was never going to lie again that would be a lie. The whole point is he is an unreliable narrator. The audience needs to know he is a liar and as he himself says at the end of the film – believe what you want.
Do you think he enjoyed this at the time and that he enjoys this now?
I don’t know if enjoy is the right word. I feel like it is a compulsion.
My husband was thinking you could make a movie about making this movie.
Have you ever read The Journalist and the Murderer? It is an amazing book by Janet Malcolm where she is the journalist, and there is a lawsuit. It is all the details about the relationships, specifically the journalist and subject. It is not flattering to journalists.
Jayson Blair sent me that book while I was working on this film as if to say, “I know what you are doing.” And I was like if you know what I am doing – why are you doing this? I asked him many times why he was doing this. He said there were a lot of things about the scandal that he, himself, did not know, and he thought that if he handed it over to someone else to investigate he might learn a few things.
What do you think was behind the name of his book, Burning Down My Master’s House?
This is not what I believe, but what a lot of people say is that if you look at the idea that race played a role in the scandal you can trace it back to Jayson Blair as the person who was perpetuating it. When I asked him about it directly he said that it sort of played a role in two ways. On a certain level it helped him because he got into the New York Times through a minority journalist internship program. But on the other side it hurt him because people never really thought he was good enough to be there.
I do not believe his race played a big role in getting away with what he got away with. I think he was able to get away with what he was able to get away with because communication systems at the New York Times were broken.
Anything else you would like to add?
As we move into everything going online and the speed at which things are being published, I think the questions around ethics and media ethics are critically important. People need to think about the ethical implications of what they are doing.
One of the things we are doing to assist that is we are building an educational game that has already been funded. It is called Decisions on Deadline. It is designed to help journalism educators and students make decisions on deadline. We are hoping to release that with the PBS broadcast in May.
Additionally we are building small tools and apps that will help journalists make decisions in the field.
The other little thing I wanted to add is in this age of the democratization of the media and that anyone can publish anywhere – I think that it is great, but nothing will ever replace institutional media. They are the only places that can go up against the governments and corporations that would squash an independent journalist. Journalists need time, money and resources to do investigations. Whether this is the New York Times or The Center for Investigative Reporting we need to work together, and we need to provide protection for journalists at work.
Do you think big institutional media is at risk?
The numbers are not encouraging. Everyone will always need information. I do not think journalism will go away anytime soon. I think the value of maintaining big institutions may be unclear. Even through this film shows its flaws, it is the best that we’ve got.
A Fragile Trust is scheduled on Independent Lens in May 2014.