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

Jayson Blair, the most infamous serial plagiarist of our time, unleashed the massive scandal that rocked the entire world of journalism.

Fragile trust 01
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
May 5, 2014
90 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call
Grant samantha filmmaker bio

Samantha Grant

Samantha Grant is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, and educator. Her approach to storytelling is influenced by both her undergraduate degree in American Studies/Literature from Yale University and her Master’s of Journalism degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Through her San Francisco-based production company GUSH productions, Grant has created work for clients including MTV, ABC, PBS, CNN, NPR, PRI, FRONTLINE, and Al Jazeera International. In 2007, she was named a Carnegie/Knight fellow as part of the News 21 Initiative on the Future of Journalism and in 2011 was named a BAVC MediaMaker Fellow. A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times, Grant’s first feature documentary, was released theatrically and aired nationally on PBS in May 2014 as part of Independent Lens. Grant's film Daughters of the Forest tells the story of a revolutionary girls high school being built in one of the last pristine forests in South America. When she’s not shooting or producing independent documentaries, you can find Grant lecturing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford’s Knight Fellowship program.

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The Film

A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times tells the shocking story of Jayson Blair, the most infamous serial plagiarist of our time, and how he unleashed the massive scandal that rocked The New York Times and the entire world of journalism. In 2003, Blair was caught plagiarizing the work of other reporters and supplementing his own reporting with fabricated details in dozens of different stories published in the Times. The ensuing media frenzy left a major blemish on the history of the “Old Grey Lady,” which just a year earlier won a record seven Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of 9/11. It was a spectacular fall for both Blair and the paper. The daily operations of the Times newsroom became a public spectacle as every major news outlet picked up the story and ran with it.

The fact that Blair is African American was emphasized again and again as accounts of the “Blair Affair” served up sordid details in a soap-opera style tale of deception, drug abuse, racism, mental illness, hierarchy, white guilt, and power struggles inside the hallowed halls of the Times. Through the course of the film, we follow Blair as he slowly unravels in the face of mounting pressures and distractions after his plagiarized article ultimately leads to his undoing. The Jayson Blair scandal at the most basic level is a character-driven narrative about an important chapter in the history of journalism, but also a complex story about power, ethics, representation, race, and accountability in the mainstream media.

Featuring exclusive interviews with everyone involved, including former Executive Editor Howell Raines and Blair himself, A Fragile Trust tells the whole sordid story of the scandal while exploring these deeper themes. With more and more publications moving to online-only formats and with plagiarism on the rise, this cautionary tale about the slippery slope of ethical transgressions is more relevant than ever.