SPJ hosts screening of 'A Fragile Trust' Jayson Blair documentary

By Marléna E. Ahearn

April 15, 2014

For many aspiring journalists, the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal is just a few pages in a textbook. The film “A Fragile Trust” shatters the notion that Blair’s actions can be confined to a moment in time, exposing the complexity and lasting effects of the scandal that rocked the world’s most famous newspaper.

Blair is a former New York Times reporter who, a decade ago, was found to have plagiarized and fabricated many of his stories. Blair worked his way up through the newsroom from an intern to a permanent position. He had the respect of his colleagues, until things got a little strange. Blair would show up to work in weird outfits, and work long hours without eating. What was initially observed as dedication to the job, was later revealed as a possible mental disorder that eventually showed itself through Blair’s fake work, according to “A Fragile Trust.”

The documentary film, which does its best to show all sides of the scandal, was recently screened in the Joyce Hergenanhan Auditorium in the Newhouse School. The film will premier this month in New York City.

The Syracuse University chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists brought the film and its filmmaker, Samantha Grant, to campus. Grant attended the screening and entertained questions afterward.

In creating “A Fragile Trust,” Grant worked to gain the trust and time of Blair and others at the Times who had lived through the embarrassing scandal. Grant says she had to convince a lot of people that she was the one to tell the story.

The story has elements that make it unique, Grant says. It touches on race, mental illness and drug abuse, she says.

The film points out that in the wake of 9/11, the New York Times newsroom was a big bureaucracy—with a new executive editor at the helm—that was essentially, flawed.

“The newsroom was not a permissive environment but a broken one that allowed (Blair) to slip through the cracks,” says Grant. “He was very good at seeing the cracks and knowing how to get through them.”

The film was originally a thesis project for Grant’s graduate degree from the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. It grew into a feature-length documentary not long after she started her research.

Grant says she started her research by finding Blair’s email address online and wrote him emails for about eight weeks. She eventually found his home address and told him over email that she was coming to his house.

Her daring move paid off, she says.

“He wrote back saying not to come, that it was an invasion of privacy, and that he was not well,” Grant says. “I told him I already have plane tickets. I will be waiting in (a) café from 9 to 5 and I hope you come.”

Blair never showed up but the conversation opened a door to others. He finally realized that the movie was going to happen, Grant says. They corresponded for a while and Grant continued to work on the project. She submitted her thesis and then Blair called Grant, asking if she still wanted the interview.

She called some friends, they packed their bags and went to Blair the next day.

“When he got involved it was sort of like you’ve written a novel and then someone says lets rip the whole thing open and insert a main character. It was paralyzing,” says Grant.

Grant revealed that her first interview with Blair was the most candid, unrehearsed and forthcoming of three she eventually had with the former reporter. Even so, Blair is an unreliable narrator, and Grant says she made great efforts to portray him in a balanced light—he is neither a victim nor a villain.

“Grant did a good job not presenting Jayson as a horrible man, but I think he is a slap in the face to journalists,” says Kyra Azzato, a Newhouse freshman who attended the screening.

The Newhouse School audience asked Grant many questions about how Blair was able to escape his wrongdoing with very few consequences. Instead, he got a book deal, they said. Grant says she thinks the societal shame cast upon Blair and his actions is probably enough.

“I think it’s really important to keep journalism as the Fourth Estate separate from the judicial and criminal justice system,” says Grant. “You don’t want journalism to be interconnected with these other things.”

Marléna E. Ahearn is a freshman newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.

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