DOXA film about Jayson Blair reveals need for better vetting of reporters
Yesterday, I had the good fortune of joining journalist Daniel Tseghay on a panel at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. It came after the screening of a film about a serial plagiarist who worked at the New York Times more than 10 years ago.
Samantha Grant's A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair left viewers with the impression that this journalism scandal was the greatest embarrassment in the history of the Gray Lady.
In fact, Tseghay pointed out that Judith Miller's series of articles in the New York Times about Saddam Hussein's supposed stockpile of chemical and biological weapons ranked as a more damaging journalistic excess.
These pieces, which were based on unnamed sources in the Bush administration, helped win over public opinion in advance of the U.S.-led attack on Iraq. It has led to the loss of 188,000 lives, according to Iraqbodycount.org.
Now, back to the movie.
As I watched Blair's various explanations—ranging from bipolar disorder to drug and alcohol addiction to a shortage of time to complete an article about a missing veteran—I came away with the following impressions about him:
• Blair is lazy and manipulative.
• He seems to take a bit of delight in telling his tale about fooling everyone at the New York Times.
• He speaks about himself in the first person to a greater degree than most people. Most of his sentences included the words "I" and "me", yet there was not nearly as much said about his victims.
• Blair expresses remorse with his words, but I didn't feel that there was any real emotion underlying this regret. He spoke in a flat tone of voice throughout, even though his face was often quite expressive.
• After he got caught stealing others' work, he simply moved on.
• He has a quiet charisma, which makes him a compelling guest on television shows. He performs well at public-speaking events, even though he's emotionally shallow.
• Blair likes saying that he entered journalism because he wanted to help people. This phrase came up again and again. It's disarming to well-intentioned people, because when they hear this, they are more likely to think that Blair is like them.
• Blair also says that everyone lies, once again trying to make him seem just like everyone else.
In fact, Blair was a chronic liar who destroyed careers at the New York Times.
For me, one of the early clues in the film that something might be amiss about Blair was his first name. In his high-school yearbook, it was "Jason". By the time he was working as a journalist, it had morphed into "Jayson". There was no explanation for this, but it left me wondering why.
I have a very common name: Charlie Smith. Never once have I considered using anything else in my reporting.
So whenever I see a reporter—as opposed to a film star or even a novelist—adopt a nom de plume, it automatically elevates my suspicion because we're supposed to trade in the truth.
According to the film, Blair was raised in a proper middle-class family and his mom was a teacher. But these parents and at least one sibling never spoke in the film, leaving me wondering why this might be the case. Do they know something about Blair that his former colleagues don't? Is he estranged from his family? That was left unanswered in A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair.
As the movie progressed, I started to wish the filmmaker had spent less time talking to other journalists and more time speaking to people with expertise in personality disorders. That's because I suspect that people who've studied this phenomenon would have offered audiences greater insights into Blair's peculiarly calm disposition after he had created so much chaos.
After Blair left the New York Times, he wrote a book called Burning Down My Master's House: My Life at the New York Times. According to the blurb about it on amazon.com, "Blair recounts the details of his struggle with manic depression and its power to confer great advantages that are attractive to those who suffer from the illness at the same time it destroys them."
It's a tidy explanation for his appalling behaviour as a journalist.
I suspect there are many others in this industry who've also suffered from bipolar disorder. And I highly doubt that they dealt with their illness by repeatedly stealing others' work and labelling it as their own.
Keep in mind that police agencies and military organizations have measures in place to prevent pathological liars from being hired. These screening techniques don't always work, but I'm guessing that they do weed out many who are ill-suited for the job.
Perhaps it's time for news organizations and journalism schools to do the same. That's because clearly, something went terribly wrong during the hiring of Jayson Blair. And anything done after the fact won't undo the damage to the newspaper's reputation or the people whose lives he ruined.