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

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

Before the New York Times named him its lead reporter on the 2001 D.C. sniper story, Jayson Blair had been accused of plagiarism in the Washington Post, had lied that a cousin had died on 9-11 to get out of contributing to the Times' great "Portraits of Grief" series, was known around the office for his drinking problem and the ridiculous number of corrections his stories demanded, and had inspired a personnel memo stating, "Jayson must stop writing for the paper now."

Nevertheless, Blair won the D.C. assignment, which he handled like any other: by holing up in his Park Slope apartment and pretending he was out reporting. The question of why exactly this faker did what he did is beyond director Samantha Grant's film, although the doc opens with Blair being asked exactly that. "I don't have a good answer for the question," he begins, and like all charismatic liars, he's off to the races, assuring us there are many complex factors and so on.

Grant's other fresh interviews include Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, the executive and managing editors fired over the Blair blowup, as well as a healthy number of present and past staffers who express outrage and sadness. Less memorable are the scenes of Blair today, reading from his memoir -- the bafflingly titled Burning Down My Masters' House -- while we're shown the snazzy images of Manhattan that the filmmakers resort to whenever they've got nothing more fitting to put onscreen. While certain to serve as a handy précis for the J-school set, A Fragile Trust is more a soiling reminder than a revelation for anyone familiar with Blair's case.

Alan Scherstuhl

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