“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.