Wednesday, April 30, 2014

TV Review | A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times

 April 29, 2014  |  

Don’t Stop the Presses: Jayson Blair Lied!

A new documentary examines the plagiarizing journalist who smeared the New York Times and made up an Iraq War soldier's interview.

There once was a sign that hung on the wall at the legendary Chicago City News Bureau, training ground for such famed scribes as Ben Hecht, Mike Royko and Seymour Hersh: “If your mother says she love you, check it out.”

Those were the bygone, dog-eared days when even lesser U.S. cities were awash with thriving dailies, and most delivered “extra” editions noon and night so we could read all about the latest news.

The ink has dried up on the banner days of traditional journalism. Revenue streams in the Internet age have slowed to a trickle, as have readers willing to cough up a dime for their daily news, weather and sports. Even fewer today will pay for classified advertising, happy to sell their used stuff on Craigslist and eBay. Longtime print institutions from the New York Times to Time magazine have struggled to stay afloat, many going under, while gimcrack websites have sprung up on the new media horizon as often as obnoxious pop-up ads, making the very concept of newspapers feel old. Amateur “citizen journalists,” many with an ax to grind, have hacked into journalism’s turf, and if you can break the story of the latest celebrity uncoupling you just might scoop yourself up a job at TMZ or Fox News. Facts? We don’t need no stinking facts.

It was in this panicky, writing-on-the-wall media cauldron that Jayson Blair smeared the great name of the New York Times, that august, 160-year-old institution and flagship of U.S. journalistic excellence. A documentary of the scandal that turned the Times into a really stinky edition of the Onion titled A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times, will be telecast nationally on Monday, May 5 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series.

Getting the disgraced Blair to tell the truth now may sound a little like asking Clifford Irving to tell us about the real Howard Hughes, but filmmaker Samantha Grant steams ahead, indulging him as he answers (sort of) her pointed questions and reading excerpts from his widely unread memoir, Burning Down My Masters’ House. Once a wonder-boy intern at the Times, Blair was brought on board as part of a program designed to promote multicultural editorial voices. Along with past and present members of the paper’s staff, Grant talks to journalists such as Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and a blunt foil to Blair’s sometimes papered-over excuses.

In this seismic scandal and coverup, Grant doesn’t need to follow the money, only the string of lies (and lines of cocaine) Blair spun in hundreds of stories he filed in five years of reporting. They all furiously began to unravel in 2003 with his first-person article on the plight of a Texas mother whose Army son had gone missing during the Iraq war. As the fiasco unfolded, it was Blair who was discovered missing in action: Not only did he not even speak to the soldier’s mother, he brazenly plagiarized an article by the San Antonio Express-News’ Macarena Hernandez.

It’s dicey to read between the lines in Grant’s brief, 75-minute chronicle on exactly why Blair wasn’t fired long before the scandal hit the headlines. His editors had long known that his articles were fact-challenged and fraught with error, and they were also aware that his drug and alcohol problems were proving toxic to his work. Former executive editor Howell Raines passes the buck, blaming middle-management staff, while those mid-managers contend that Raines never bothered to read the memo strongly urging a ditch-Blair project.

Was Blair a unique case? Raines now calls his former star reporter a “sociopath and disturbed individual.” Yet another observer says the debacle was a “tragedy of the electronic age,” with broader implications. After all, Blair’s e-plagiarism was just a quick click away, since he could easily cut and paste stories from other websites, slyly juggling them to cover up his trail. Any teacher today can unhappily report how many students similarly sample and patch together their class papers, starting with that bottomless virtual inkwell of secondhand information, Wikipedia, while writing off bona fide source material, e.g., books. 

For his part, Blair is apologetic and chastened in one sentence, evasive and equivocating in the next. In his resignation letter to the Times, he confessed that he “was not ready for prime-time,” but then adds, incredibly, “despite my enormous talent.” He also blames his bad behavior on drug and alcohol abuse, his way of medicating a manic-depressive illness. Ten years after, Blair has since taken his talents to a job as a Virginia “life coach.” Bruised and battered, the Times keeps marching on, but the clock may be ticking.

Thomas Delapa is a film critic who has written for the Chicago Tribune and AlterNet. He teaches film at the University of Denver.

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