A Fragile Trust is a shocking and fascinating look at Jayson Blair’s downward spiral through the hallowed halls of The New York Times’ news department. “The Blair Affair,” which coincided with the trajectory of newsrooms going digital, not only rocked the Paper of Record, but shook the foundations of journalism and unleashed questions of ethics, accountability, race, representation, and power in media. Called “the most infamous serial plagiarist of our time,” Blair gives candid and telling testimonies, reads from his book, and reveals what he is doing now in Samantha Grant’s not-to-be-missed, illuminating first feature. Brittney Shepherd is a co-producer on the film.
Please describe your film in your own words.
Samantha Grant: A Fragile Trust tells the story of a young person who made some really bad decisions, and the film takes a look at what was going on in his life and in the world around him that led him to the moment where he decided that repeatedly lying was an acceptable thing to do. This young person, Jayson Blair, happened to be a rising star reporter at The New York Times, so his lies had far reaching consequences that ultimately destroyed several lives as well as further eroding public trust in the media.
What inspired you to tell this particular story?
SG: The story of The Blair Affair, as it’s known, is more or less a mandatory part of every journalism ethics class around the country and beyond. It’s the most egregious case of plagiarism at the most powerful newspaper in the world, and every journalism student studies this case as a cautionary tale. I myself came across the story when I was a graduate student in journalism school at UC Berkeley, and despite the fact that there was plenty of reporting on the scandal itself at the time that it happened, I still did not feel that those reports and summaries fully explained what had happened.
As a documentarian, I am always looking for interesting personal stories that intersect with larger public narratives and touch on bigger themes, and as a story that deals with issues of trust in the media, affirmative action in institutions, and power and hierarchy in journalism, the story of the Jayson Blair/New York Times plagiarism scandal definitely fits the bill.
Brittney Shepherd: I came on board the project about three years ago. My inspiration for working on this film was Samantha’s commitment to telling a complete and robust account of the scandal. Her passion to tell a nuanced account of a complicated story inspired me to join the film as co-producer.
Without giving the movie away, what role do you think race played in the whole affair?
SG: Lena Williams, a former reporter at The New York Times who knew Blair said it best: “It became about race because a black person was involved. A black person cannot be involved in anything without it being about race.” In the film, we take a critical look at the media coverage surrounding the scandal, thereby raising questions for people about why news organizations sometimes jump to the easy or obvious conclusions in a complicated story, rather than digging a bit deeper to come up with a more nuanced and accurate explanation. Race can be a challenging thing to talk about in this country, even in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ era, and I hope that close examination of what really happened in the case of the Blair media scandal gives people a starting point to have critical and meaningful conversations about these issues.
Do you think Jayson Blair has had/will have a lasting impact on print journalism and its subsequent (ongoing) downfall?
SG: Jayson Blair is the most infamous serial plagiarist of our time. He is the gold standard by which all other plagiarism is measured, so in that regard, I think his story will continue to be relevant long into the future.
In terms of how the actions of Jayson Blair directly impacted the slow demise of print journalism, I don’t think he had a huge impact. The degradation of the public trust in the mainstream media is a slow process that is the result of many different factors, including but not limited to untrustworthy journalists. But the important thing to remember is that for every journalist who makes bad decisions, there are hundreds of other journalists (like all the other journalists in this film) who are making good decisions every day and who continue to dedicate their lives to shining a light on the hidden facts and finding and relaying ‘the truth’ in the daily news.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
SG: I hope the film makes an argument for the importance of institutional journalism, even though the film shows the flaws in one big journalism institution. That said, all institutions are inherently flawed because they are run by human beings, and human beings are flawed. But we need big journalism institutions to take on and hold accountable other big institutions like corporations and the government, since independent journalists often don’t have the resources to do this kind of work by themselves. With that in mind, my hope is that audience members will realize that Jayson Blair is not an example of everything that’s wrong with journalism and what happened at The New York Times was caused by a fairly complex and unique set of circumstances that is unlikely to be repeated. Jayson Blair is really not a good example of anything but himself—and I hope the film corrects the record in that regard.
Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
SG: The one big lesson I kept learning in the process of making this film is that persistence pays. Every single person I interviewed for this film initially said ‘no’ when I asked if they’d be willing to sit for an interview. But I kept asking and eventually, everyone important agreed. Beyond that, I had to work very hard to raise the money to complete the film, and I was thrilled when ITVS Open Call came on board in 2011 to provide finishing funds.
BS: My piece of advice is to be patient—work hard, but be patient. Films take a long time to make and often, the initial story that you set out to tell is a totally different story in the end. Also, make sure that you have a diverse skill set—as an independent filmmaker, you better know how to shoot, edit, code, and definitely know how to recognize a good story.
What are you most looking forward to at the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival?
SG: East Hampton is a very special place for me and for my family, and I am really looking forward to returning. My father was a journalist, an editor at Time Magazine, and when I was a baby we used to come to East Hampton for several weeks each summer. The first place I ever put my feet in the ocean was at East Hampton Main Beach when I was 6 weeks old. Main Beach also happens to be the place I got engaged nearly 28 years later.
I remember growing up and seeing signs for the Hamptons International Film Fest when I was younger and thinking it was so glamorous and fantastic. I never dreamed that I would someday be returning to East Hampton with a film of my own, but here I am. Now that I live in California, it just feels right to be returning to East Hampton, in many ways my soul’s home, for the North American premiere of my first feature film.
BS: I am hugely looking forward to the great line up of films that are slated for HIFF, as well as visiting the Hamptons for the first time. As a Californian (born and bred), I’ve only ever heard of the Hamptons in films and literature. We’re thrilled to bring the film here for its North American premiere.
Samantha Grant (director/producer) creates thought-provoking, character-driven documentaries that are solidly rooted in journalism. Through her company GUSH Productions, Grant has created content for clients including MTV, ABC, PBS, CNN, NPR, FRONTLINE, FRONTLINE/World, and Al Jazeera International. In 2007, Grant was named a Carnegie/Knight fellow and in 2011, Sam was named a BAVC MediaMaker Fellow, where she began developing the Educational Game Decisions on Deadline as a companion project to A Fragile Trust. When she’s not shooting or producing indie docs, Grant is lecturing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford’s Knight Fellowship program.