It’s been 11 years since New York Times plagiarist and fabricator Jayson Blair almost literally blew himself up. Those who caught that explosion’s shrapnel are legion: All of journalism took a hit. Have we recovered?
A new documentary airing Monday on PBS, “A Fragile Trust,” explores the story of how the young reporter managed to perpetrate a years-long fraud at one of the nation’s most prestigious newspaper. It’s a multifaceted story that takes on racial politics, as well as human and institutional imperfection.
San Francisco-based independent filmmaker Samantha Grant drew on interviews with most of the key players, internal Times records and televised news accounts. Working on the seven-year, 75-minute-long project, she said, gave her gray hair.
“I never had that before,” Grant told me. “But this story is complicated and tragic.”
Seth Mnookin, who chronicled Jayson Blair’s downfall in Hard News, views him as “Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the precipitating cause. He’s a scam artist who was able to scam so many people for so long. In doing that, he harmed something much bigger than himself.”
For instance, the careers and reputations of members of the Times’ editorial leadership—Howell Raines and Gerald M. Boyd both resigned as a result of the fiasco—along with newsroom diversity efforts. (Blair is African-American.)
But the scandal gave the news media as a whole a black eye.
“This movie is about a painful affair for journalism,” Mnookin, who also appears in the film, told me. “But it’s important to understand the environment in which good journalism is made and how mistakes can happen.”
While these events happened more than a decade ago, they are still a sore topic for many in the industry. (No past or present Times editors responded to emails for this article.) The shift from print to digital and the intensity of the pace required of websites, where nimbleness is often prized above accuracy, facilitated Blair’s transgressions. His ability to cut and paste from a myriad of online sources gave the impression of originality. But tangled web of nonstop lies included phony date lines, handwritten notes, travel receipts and quotes.
Oh, and he was a bipolar cocaine addict and alcoholic.
Mnookin has written publically about his own struggles with substance addiction, and he sympathizes with Blair, up to a point.
“I feel some sympathy because he’s a really young man in a lot of distress and dealing with psychological and substance abuse issues,” Mnookin said. “But that doesn’t relieve him of responsibility or equate with a free pass with all behavior going forward.”
On camera, Blair, who now works as a life coach, doesn’t coherently answer the most obvious question: “Why?”
Fox News Latino reached Blair via Twitter and asked him what he thought of Grant’s film. “I haven’t seen it, so I can’t imagine having anything to add,” he replied.
Asked to to comment about the scandal in general. “Lived it; don’t need to relive it,” he answered. “Do think it might have value for journalists.”
Lasting value. Back in 2004, when I wrote a piece about the scandal for the American Journalism Review, I got to know Macarena Hernández, a Mexican-American reporter. An article she’d written for the San Antonio Express-News on April 18, 2003 – “A Valley Mom Awaits News of MIA Son” – told the story, from Los Fresnos, Texas, of Juanita Anguiano and her only son, Army Sgt. Edward John Anguiano, lost in the war in Iraq.
Eight days later, Blair’s story, “Family Waits, Now Alone, for a Missing Soldier,” appeared on the front page of the New York Times. In it, he mentioned, among other made-up or cribbed details, that the Martha Stewart patio furniture Juanita’s son had given her was assembled out on the lawn. In truth, that furniture was still in its box in the kitchen.
Hernández freaked. She and Blair had done a Times minority summer internship in 1998, and now her former colleague had ripped off her work. Not as it turned out from Los Fresnos, as his article’s date line asserted, but from his Brooklyn apartment.
At first, Hernández, who appears in “A Fragile Trust,” had a hard time believing it.
“It didn’t make sense,” she told me. “I really worried about what this could mean and what state of mind he was in.”
When Edward Anguiano’s body was recovered two days later, Hernández returned to Juanita’s house for a follow-up. By chance, she ran into Manuel Roig-Franzia, a Spanish-born writer for the Washington Post, who was also doing a story on the Anguianos.
“Macarena told me about the blatant plagiarism and she wasn’t happy about it,” Roig-Franzia said. “I felt for her as a journalist. It felt awful to have your words lifted without being credited for it.”
Roig-Franzia passed on Hernández’s email and cell phone number on to the Post’s National desk, which assigned the story to its then media critic, Howard Kurtz.
“From the moment I first talked to Jayson Blair, I realized he was a liar,” said Kurtz, who also appears in the film. “He claimed off the record that he had mixed up his notes with the article in a way that simply was not believable.”
It took Kurtz several more days of reporting and reaching people quoted by Blair to prove to Kurtz that Blair had deceived his editors and readers time and again.
“I’ve covered a number of plagiarists and there’s always a bogus explanation about mixing up notes,” Kurtz said. “The material that Blair stole from the Texas paper was in some cases word for word, down to a description of the patio furniture. Blair sounded nervous, and it just didn’t ring true.”
Stephen Buckley, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, compares the Blair affair to watching a horrible car wreck.
“It’s a profoundly sad story whose layers defy cliché and quick diagnosis,” he said. “I feel rage – what he did to the industry was a kick to the gut – but also sadness and confusion about why this all happened. Part of the struggle as I listened to Blair [in the movie] was, ‘How do I process what you’re saying when you’re an admitted and calculating fabricator? How does that work?’”
To the dismay of Hernández, whom Samantha Grant considers “the hero” of the documentary, “The anti-diversity, anti-affirmative action legs of the story became the dominant narrative,” she said. “And phrases like ‘misguided effort to diversify the newsroom’? Give me a break! The coverage made it sound like newsrooms are overrun by minorities.”
What’s more, Hernández pointed out, most newspapers are no longer much concerned with diversity. In fact, she added, Blair’s blow-up was the last permission newspapers needed to begin willfully ignoring diversity efforts.
So have we recovered?
“It’s all about survival now,” Hernández said. “Getting a handle on how to further integrate the Internet, be a one-stop shop, and be a true multimedia platform.”