How A Disgraced Reporter Tested The Public's Trust In Journalism

New York Times rising star Jayson Blair was busted in spring 2003 for plagiarizing and making up stories. Filmmaker Samantha Grant's new documentary, A Fragile Trust, sheds light on the scandal.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now we want to look back on a scandal that rocked one of this country's most prestigious news organizations. Jayson Blair had been a rising star during a nearly four-year career at the New York Times, but in the spring of 2003, it became clear he had plagiarized, or outright fabricated, dozens of stories he'd allegedly written for the paper.

He'd lifted passages from other people's work. He pretended to visit cities he never traveled to and wrote about information from confidential sources that did not exist. The scandal was painful and embarrassing for journalists, whether they worked for The Times or not, especially when it became clear that Jayson Blair had gotten away with it for a very long time with very little effort, or so he later explained.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A FRAGILE TRUST: PLAGIARISM, POWER, AND JAYSON BLAIR AT THE NEW YORK TIMES")

JAYSON BLAIR: You know, none of it was rocket science. If you take a little from here, and if I steal a little from you here, and I steal a little from you here and I steal a little from you here, no one really sees that a bunch of my stuff is stolen. They might say, oh, that paragraph's very similar, but the rest of it's different.

MARTIN: That's a clip of Jayson Blair himself, speaking in a new documentary that attempts to shed new light on all the factors that went into the scandal and what we can learn from it now. The film is called, "A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, And Jayson Blair At The New York Times." It will air tonight as part of the PBS Independent Lens series. And director-producer, Samantha Grant, is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SAMANTHA GRANT: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Oh, for those who aren't familiar with your work, you are a very experienced filmmaker, and you describe yourself as a third-generation journalist. But I'm wondering, what - what it is that you wanted to find out with this film, with your investigation of this issue that we didn't already know.

GRANT: There had been a lot of coverage of the scandal at the time that it happened. But when I went back and looked at it as the potential subject for a film, I realized that there really had not been any kind of postmortem on what had happened. And it was time to put that together because there were some inconsistencies in the reporting that I wanted to correct.

MARTIN: So fast-forward through a little bit of the story. Who is Jayson Blair? And how did he end up at The Times?

GRANT: Jayson Blair was a young reporter who worked at a number of newspapers as he was growing up, you know, in high school and such. And then, he got a number of prestigious internships at various papers, including the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. And he had great recommendations from some of his faculty where he went to school at University of Maryland. And he applied for an internship at the New York Times, got the internship, impressed some higher-ups and eventually was hired.

MARTIN: So how did the whole thing unravel?

GRANT: He was working there for a few years and was having some troubles with accuracy, is how it was described. At first, there were primarily just errors, and it wasn't until much later that the fabrication and plagiarism started, and that really was concentrated mostly in the last few months that he was there.

MARTIN: You do make a point in the film of noting some of the benchmarks in the rise of digital journalism, which is going along at the same time as Jayson Blair was working at The Times and as this scandal was unfolding. What's the connection? Why do you think it's important to note that?

GRANT: I do think that the rise of digital journalism and the transition from legacy to digital media was a factor in this story in a couple of ways. Number one, is that Jayson was able to take advantage of, and manipulate, some of the newer digital tools that, perhaps, some others weren't quite aware of.

And number two, when the new editor was brought into the paper, he was brought in with a mandate to pick up the pace to make things run more efficiently. And I think a lot of that mandate was coming down because of this culture of fear that had pervaded the media, specifically the newspaper industry, with the rise of digital.

MARTIN: You interview the reporter, Macarena Hernandez, from whom he plagiarized. Nobody knew that he didn't actually go to Texas, and I just - that's the part that I just could never figure out. You think the speed question is part of it? Is it things were just moving so fast, everybody wanted to pick up the pace, that people didn't take the time to answer these questions, like, did you really go?

GRANT: That trip happened just a month or so before he was caught. So he probably wouldn't have had to turn in his receipts for that just yet. And when they asked him for receipts when they were doing the investigation, that was really the moment at which he said, wow, I am going to have to fake these receipts if I'm going to get away with this. And it was really at that moment that he realized this was not going to work out well for him.

With regard to the other stories that had happened prior to that, based on what I learned from speaking with people, it sounds like the communication systems between editors were not functioning really well, specifically because of what was happening in the wake of 9/11. And there was the fact that there was a brand-new executive editor and managing editor at the paper who had come on board just five days prior to September 11 happening. So you have new leadership, and then you have the biggest, and arguably, the most terrifying, story happening right in your own backyard at the New York Times, right at the same time that this is all happening. So it was just sheer chaos, I think, in a lot of ways, which is not standard operating procedure.

MARTIN: So the scandal didn't just end Blair's career. It brought down managing editor, Gerald Boyd, and executive editor, Howell Raines. And I think this is probably a good place to mention, for people who don't know, that Jayson Blair was one of a handful of high-profile black journalists at the paper, and Gerald Boyd was the first black managing editor of the paper. And some observers blame the scandal on diversity efforts at the New York Times. I mean, you actually spoke with Howell Raines about that. And here's a clip from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A FRAGILE TRUST: PLAGIARISM, POWER, AND JAYSON BLAIR AT THE NEW YORK TIMES")

HOWELL RAINES: One of the frustrations I've had is that some people have suggested that I was lax with Jayson because of white Southern guilt. I don't think there was a reluctance to blow the whistle on Jayson based on race.

MARTIN: Just about everybody you spoke with denied that race was a factor in Blair getting away with what he did, or how the whole thing kind of unfolded. So how did that become kind of a major part of the story?

GRANT: The question of race became infused into the story, simply by the way the mainstream media reported on it. All on a sudden, the story morphed into this story about race and affirmative action, and that was really incorrect.

And one thing I just want to add here, is that Gerald Boyd was not Jayson Blair's mentor, and that was something that was avidly denied by both men. And yet, somehow, it was reported, and it was re-reported. And I can only imagine that that must've been devastating for Gerald Boyd, especially since it wasn't true.

MARTIN: OK. Now we know what the what is. We know what happened. I described that at the beginning. But really what you want to get to is why. And I want to play a clip from a conversation that you had with Jayson Blair. This actually appears very early in the film. And I'll just play that clip, and then you can tell me more about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A FRAGILE TRUST: PLAGIARISM, POWER, AND JAYSON BLAIR AT THE NEW YORK TIMES")

GRANT: Why did you do it?

BLAIR: This one again. No. I don't have a good answer for the question. You know, I've gone over it, you know, many years, run it through my head. The basic conclusion that I come down to is that there isn't a simple one answer.

MARTIN: He's not the only person who's made up stories. I mean, famously, the Washington Post was forced to give back a Pulitzer Prize that was awarded to one of its reporters, a young woman named Janet Cooke, who made up an entire figure, character and wove a whole story around it. But what do you think it means? I mean, what is the broader lesson you think we should learn from this?

GRANT: You know, the story of "Jimmy's World" and Janet Cooke is also, in some ways, a simpler story to tell because it doesn't have these other elements.

MARTIN: Janet Cooke was that Washington Post reporter who wrote that fabricated story I just mentioned. It was about a young boy named Jimmy, who she said, was addicted to heroin. And of course, he did not exist.

GRANT: And I think any time you are dealing with someone who does have mental health issues and drug abuse issues, it does get more complicated. At nearly every screening, somebody from the mental health field comes up to me afterwards and tells me that they think this is the perfect case study of somebody who has bipolar disorder that's undiagnosed, and it causes their life to blow up because they haven't sought treatment.

MARTIN: Does Jayson Blair think that?

GRANT: He really does take responsibility on a certain level for saying it wasn't the mental illness that made him lie. But he does say it was the mental illness that made them so egregious.

MARTIN: After you spent this time on this project, does it leave you with any thoughts about the field, about the way we treat people, about why we're drawn to this work ourselves? Did it leave you with any deep thoughts?

GRANT: Certainly one of the things that I want to get across is that, while the democratization of the media is a great thing because it allows more voices to participate, I don't think that individual voices will ever, or should ever, replace big media institutions because we need those institutions to take on things, like the government or other corporations.

MARTIN: And why do you feel like that's a part of this story?

GRANT: What happened with Jayson Blair really challenged the faith of a lot of readers. I mean, public faith in the media has been in decline for ages, but this story really was difficult for people to absorb because the New York Times was sort of the last holdout. Nothing like this had ever happened there. There was a feeling of invincibility.

And when this type of fraud took place at such a highly regarded institution, I think a lot of people just threw their hands up and said, everyone's corrupt. And I think that's incredibly dangerous because if everyone just turns into their own corner and only reads news that supports their own personal agenda, then that's basically the end of dialogue in this country.

MARTIN: Filmmaker, Samantha Grant, joined us from San Francisco. Her new documentary, "A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, And Jayson Blair At The New York Times" debuts on many PBS stations tonight. You'll want to check your local listings for exact times. Samantha Grant, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GRANT: Thanks so much for having me.

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