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 well known around the office for his drinking problem and the ridiculously high number of corrections his storied demanded, had inspired a personnel memo flatly stating, “Jayson must stop writing for the paper now,” and — according one of the Times staffers interviewed on camera in A Fragile Trust — once lost a company car for month. Nevertheless, Blair won the D.C. assignment, which he handled like most 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 it does open with a new interview of Blair being asked exactly that. “I don’t have a good answer for the question,” he begins, and then, like all charismatic liars, he’s off to the races, assuring us there are many complex factors and on and on. Over the course of the doc (and his memoir), Blair spins out partial explanations by the score, from pressure to produce at the Times, depression and bipolar disorder, cocaine abuse, the way his editors “begged and pleaded with me to turn that story around in a matter of days,” the fact that the Times made it so easy to do in the first place.
Grant’s interview roster boasts Howell Raines, the executive edior fired over the Blair blowup, as well as a healthy number of present and past staffers who express outrage and sadness. Some impressive archival footage illustrates Blair’s promising youth: There’s the Times‘ new phenom in a 1999 recruiting video for the University of Maryland, hailing a taxi, presumably off to interview some source. 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 mostly well made, and 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 already familiar with Blair’s case. The film is strongest and most damning when its focus is on the institution Blair outfoxed rather than Blair himself. (Like lots of busted liars, he’s remorseful yet obviously proud, too.) At the Times, reporters and editors blame the top brass for failing to hear their warnings, while the top brass, in exile, blames the middle editors for not passing along the memos that maybe would have kept Raines from assigning Blair to go to D.C. — the biggest story he would ever get. Blair’s chatter isn’t really worth your time. What might be: the reminder that even at the Times, where there are still editors and infrastructure, a committed prevaricator can get away with pretending to be a reporter. In that way, at least, Blair prefigured the age of aggregation.