*On Monday, PBS’ Independent Lens premieres “A Fragile Trust,” a documentary about the rise and fall of journalist Jayson Blair. He came to the New York Times as a superstar feature writer and left in disgrace after he was caught plagiarizing the work of other reporters – multiple times.
The fact that he was African American was a huge part of the scandal. It gave those against affirmative action hiring programs ammunition against the pracice, and it left black journalists in newsrooms around the country with the unfair burden of proving that Blair was the exception, not the norm.
“We were all suspect. We were all guilty before proving ourselves innocent,” said Lena Williams, a former senior writer for the Times who worked with Blair. “We were double-checked. We were triple-checked. And I have to say it just didn’t happen to the minority journalists. Across the board, Times reporters complained that I mean, if we just covered the Muppets, you say Kermit is green, but he’s not really kind of green. It’s more lime. So should we put in lime? Were you there? Did you see Kermit the Frog up close?”
Blair was first discovered to have plagiarized a story about a missing soldier in Iraq. Soon, further investigations revealed it was just one of many that he either fabricated or borrowed from other journalists over the years, including such high profile stories as the D.C. Snipers and Jessica Lynch.
Blair, who has kept out of the public eye ever since his scandal broke, tells his own story in the film, thanks to the doggedness of filmmaker Samantha Grant.
“Getting Jayson and, frankly, almost everybody else in the film to agree to be in the film was a challenge,” Grant told us. “But really there’s one word that sums it up, and it’s just sheer persistence. I just kept emailing him. I emailed him every week for six, eight months, nearly a year. And it wasn’t until I had completed the original version of the film, which was a short film that was my thesis film for graduate school, that he then agreed to be in the film.”
Blair takes viewers through his spiral downward, explaining that the pressure on him to succeed at the country’s most prestigious newspaper is what prompted him to cut corners.
The film also follows his undiagnosed mental illness and severe drug use. The symptoms were very apparent in the newsroom, but Williams says that white guilt at the liberal paper is what ultimately allowed Blair to continue unchecked.
“To see a young man who hadn’t washed in a long time, who hadn’t changed his clothes, whose eyes were glassy, who kind of smoked nonstop, who was eating Snickers bars for dinner, there was a problem to the point that some of us said, ‘You know, what’s going on here?’” said Williams. “But, it was an institution where you dare not question, ‘I don’t like what you’re wearing. Is that your odor?’ You just don’t do that. He got the story. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to run the story.”
Below, Williams gives more details of how Blair’s plagiarizing scandal indirectly affected all black journalists at the time.
“A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times” airs Monday (May 5) on PBS. (Check local listings.)
Watch a preview below.