You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘A Fragile Trust’

Portrait of disgraced reporter Jayson Blair raises tough questions about journalistic ethics and personal responsibility in the digital era.


Jayson Blair, Howell Raines, Macarena Hernandez, Lena Williams, Seth Mnookin, Howard Kurtz,  Gerald Boyd, Jerry Gray, Edward Wong. 

“A Fragile Trust,” Samantha Grant’s well-balanced documentary about Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter whose plagiarism and fabrications undermined the profession of print journalism at its most vulnerable point, roughly alternates between Blair’s defenders/critics and the man himself in examining how such unethical conduct arose and went so long undetected. While Blair himself rarely ventures beyond attempts at self-justification, Times staffers focus on problems of oversight and internal management, and the who/what/why/where/when reportage mostly shoves larger issues of truth-telling in the electronic age into the background. Today, 10 years after the fact, auxiliary and tube play seem the best fits for this meticulous postmortem.

Grant opens the film with the article that blew the whistle on Blair, a story about the anguished mother of an MIA soldier during the early days of the Iraq War. Macarena Hernandez, who wrote the original article for a San Antonio paper (and turns out to have interned at the Times alongside Blair), describes her discovery of Blair’s blatant, word-for-word thievery of the homey details that gave her article pathos. Meanwhile, director Grant, filming evocative images of horses, roads, religious statues and cacti, paints her own version of a Texas that Blair could not have seen, never having left his Brooklyn apartment.

News of Blair’s malfeasance spread like wildfire as more and more instances of plagiarism and fabrication came to light. A particularly effective graphic shows layouts of newsprint where whole purloined sentences and paragraphs unravel and evaporate, as the extent and depth of Blair’s “borrowing” becomes known.

Blair is on hand to furnish his own brief bio, from his happy childhood to his fast-track career to his growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, leading to erratic behavior, isolation and a corresponding drop in ethics as he increasingly snatched information from a variety of Internet sources. Fellow Times journalists describe him coming to work unwashed and oddly dressed. Abstract black-and-white animation depicts Blair at his computer, completely divorced from the people and places he is supposedly describing. A montage of printed corrections attests to increased errors and inaccuracies in his reporting.

This testimony begs the question of why Blair was allowed to remain at the paper. For rabble-rousing right-wingers, this was naturally hailed as proof of the failure of affirmative action; Grant offers a more rational explanation by citing the major changes instituted upon the arrival of executive editor Howell Raines, whose mandate was to usher the Times into the digital arena. His top-down management and demands for fast-paced journalism replaced a team spirit that might have ensured a shared sense of responsibility toward the paper.

While Blair’s infractions may feel like ancient history, traumatic conversions of mass media outlets are now so commonplace that 2013’s updated “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” can confidently use the background of Life magazine’s print-to-digital transition to posit questions of legitimacy or the lack thereof. Blair himself seems oblivious to his role in damaging public trust, refusing to assist the Times in its investigation into past articles in order to write his own exculpatory book. A coda finds him glorying in his new profession as a “life counselor” with 200 clients, a veritable poster child for non-accountability in the exploding digital age.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'A Fragile Trust'

Reviewed on DVD, New York, Dec. 3, 2013. (In Doc NYC.) Running time: 74 MIN.


A Gush production. Produced by Samantha Grant. Co-producer, Brittney Shepherd.


Directed by Samantha Grant. Written by Grant, Richard Levien. Camera (color, HD), Singeli Agnew, Grant; editor, Levien; music, Justin Melland; sound, Joelle Jaffe; re-recording mixer, Philip Perkins.  


Jayson Blair, Howell Raines, Macarena Hernandez, Lena Williams, Seth Mnookin, Howard Kurtz,  Gerald Boyd, Jerry Gray, Edward Wong. 

More Film

  • Jason Lei Howden, Samara Weaving and

    Daniel Radcliffe On Acting With Weapons Nailed To Your Hands

    How did “Guns Akimbo” director and writer Jason Lei Howden convince Daniel Radcliffe to play a character with guns nailed to his hands? Easy, he sent him the script. Radcliffe joined Howden and “Ready or Not’s” breakout star Samara Weaving in the Variety’s Toronto Film Festival studio, presented by AT&T to talk the limits of [...]

  • Box Office: It Chapter Two Maintains

    Box Office: 'It: Chapter Two' Continues International Reign With $47 Million

    Pennywise’s reign of terror hasn’t wavered: Warner Bros.’ “It Chapter Two” maintained first place on box office charts, led by another strong showing overseas. The sequel, based on Stephen King’s horror novel, generated another $47 million at the international box office for a foreign tally of $169 million. After two weeks of release, “It Chapter [...]

  • First still from the set of

    Taika Waititi’s 'Jojo Rabbit' Wins Top Prize at Toronto Film Festival Awards

    Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” has won the coveted People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The honor positions the film for a potential Oscar run and bolsters its awards chances. That’s good news for Fox Searchlight, which must have been disappointed by the lackluster critical reception for the movie, a dark comedy [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Racks Up Solid $33 Million Debut, 'Goldfinch' Bombs

    “Hustlers” rolled in the Benjamins this weekend, collecting $33.2 million when it debuted in 3,250 North American theaters. Boosted by rave reviews and stellar word of mouth, “Hustlers” beat expectations and now ranks as the best start for an STX film, along with the biggest live-action opening weekend for stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. [...]

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

  • Female Filmmakers in Germany Make Progress

    Female Filmmakers Surge Forward in Germany, But Still Face Obstacles

    Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content