It’s been 10 years since Jayson Blair’s plagiarism scandal brought the New York Times to its knees. The reporter, then 27 years old, had quickly risen through the ranks of the nation’s most venerable daily paper, a rise made all the more remarkable given that Blair was one of only a handful of black reporters at an institution that was historically, and frustratingly, white.
But he went from writing stories to becoming one when it was discovered that he had plagiarized a report about a U.S. soldier who had gone missing in Iraq from a former colleague, Macarena Hernandez, who had interned with him at the Times and was reporting at her hometown paper in San Antonio. An internal investigation later uncovered more than 30 instances of plagiarism in Blair’s four year career at the paper. What followed was a national conversation about what, if any, role race played in hastening what the paper called a “low point” in its 150 year history, a point exacerbated by print media’s tumultuous transition into the digital age. Would Blair— who had documented struggles with substance abuse and sloppiness, have been given so many chances if he were not black? And just how important is a newspaper staff’s diversity to its mission of covering an increasingly multiracial society?
Filmmaker and educator Samantha Grant tackles some of these questions in her probing new documentary, “A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times,” which takes an in-depth look at the controversy. The film uses Blair’s downfall as one example of what Grant calls the “slippery slope of ethical journalism in the digital age.” Grant, who teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Journalism and in Stanford’s Knight Fellowship is also at work creating an interactive game called “Decisions on Deadline” to help journalists of all ages engage critically with questions of media ethics. The game will be released along with the film’s PBS broadcast in May of 2014. The film made its debut last week at New York’s Documentary Film Festival. Here, Grant talks about race, heartbreak and the power of big journalism.
One of the things I thought you did incredibly well was talk about how this became a story about race. Was that something you felt was unanswered in the coverage before your film?
I certainly felt that no one had spent enough time examining why the story became a story about race. But I didn’t find any real thoughtful examination about why that had happened. I think that jumping to quick conclusions that something that often happens in daily news. For something like a documentary film, you have a bit more time to dig a little deeper and to get to the core of what’s really going underneath the story.
How exactly did this devolve into a discussion about race and, to a much larger extent, diversity?
I really think [New York Times columnist] Lena Williams, who is another person of color in the film sums it up best by saying, “It became a story about race because a black person was involved.” She then goes on to cite several other journalism scandals that were not about a person of color and those scandals did not get framed as, “Steven Glass, this white guy at the New Republic,” or Jack Kelley from USA Today, or Mike Barnicle from the Boston Globe. Those are all stories about white reporters and the fact that they’re white reporters wasn’t part of the headline.
In this case, as Lena said, it became a story about race because it’s a story about a black person and, in the mainstream media, that somehow translates into race having played a role.
Do you think that impacted at all by the fact that the New York Times was in this really critical period of transitioning to digital platforms?
I think the move from legacy to digital media played a role in the scandal in that Jayson was able to manipulate the system in a way that perhaps some people who were less technologically savvy didn’t really know about. As far as the pace of the news cycle lending itself to errors, I certainly think that there is a relationship between speed and accuracy. But that’s not really something that I get into so much in the film as far as it relates to digital, but I get into it as far as it relates to Jayson saying that he published more and more and therefore and had a lot more errors. Haste makes waste. You don’t take the time, you don’t do the work thoroughly and that leads to errors. Not always, but it can.
Was there anything in the film, either from his interviews or with someone else, that didn’t make it into the film that you think is really important?
The thing that was the hardest for me not to be able to include was an interview I did with Robin Stone. [Stone was the wife of managing editor Gerald Boyd who was fired, along with executive editor Howell Raines—Eds.] It was a huge ask for me to even ask her to do an interview with me about this. Gerald Boyd’s career was completely destroyed by this scandal and he then subsequently passed away just a few years later. This [scandal] really blew up their world; it was Robin and their son, Zachary.
To ask someone to revisit such a painful time is a really big deal. I had footage of the interview in that film and I fought hard to keep it in there, but after a lot of screenings and revisions , it was determined that we were really going to limit the people in the film to first person participants. … I really wanted to keep Robin in the film and it broke my heart to not be able to do that.
What made her interview so compelling?
Gerald Boyd was said to have been Jayson Blair’s mentor, which wasn’t true. That was certainly a point that I insisted on keeping in the film and that’s still there. Just talking with her was really heartbreaking. I can’t imagine how painful that would be to watch your partner get completely devastated and have their career really implode because of someone that was more or less out of their control. It was hard to hear Robin talk about it, but I think it really brought home the fact that there was a real human cost to this scandal. I think it’s very easy to think of this as another journalism scandal, but in fact, people’s lives were destroyed by this. And Gerald Boyd was one of the people whose lives was destroyed by this.
In talking about this 10 years later, why do you think it’s important for folks to remember that human element of this scandal?
I think reminders about the slippery slope of ethnical transgressions are always useful. But they’re even more useful now as we get even deeper into the digital media and journalism. You hear about a new plagiarism scandal every other day and part of that is because it’s so easy to plagiarize these days. It literally takes one minute to just copy, paste and publish someone else’s work. I think that’s a conversation that really needs to be happening, not only in journalism classrooms but also with the general public.
Broader conversations about media ethics, media literacy and the role of media in society are really important conversations to have. I think the democratization of the media is a great thing. … But I think it’s really important to remember why we need big journalism institutions and to be reminded of that. In this case, this film points out the flaws in one of these big journalism institutions, the New York Times, which is possibly the most powerful and famous one.
Despite those flaws, we need institutional journalism like the New York Times more than ever before because even though there are more voices in the conversation, not all of those voices can take on government or huge corporations. When you’re fighting a massive enemy, you need to have some strengths, and there’s strength in numbers.