A Fragile Trust.
Maybe it's the bleakness of the winter months, or maybe it's just that the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema is grabbing every worthy documentary feature for its regular schedule, but the featured title of this month's Doc Soup screening just feels undercooked.
Screening twice on Wednesday (January 8) and once on Thursday (January 9), Samantha Grant's A Fragile Trust takes a look at the Jayson Blair scandal from the inside out, building itself primarily around interviews with the plagiarist and self-confessed liar and drug addict whose faked reporting did considerable damage to the august credibility of The New York Times in the early years of the 21st century.
Blair's story is an incredible one, and loaded in all sorts of ways. Beyond Blair's own backstory - he claims to suffer from bipolar disorder and clinical depression, which he self-medicated with cocaine and other drugs during his tenure at the Times - there are larger questions of racial politics, class lines, the mutating ethics of the Internet age and so forth. (After the scandal broke, Blair himself was happy to play the race card by titling his self-justifying memoir Burning Down My Masters' House.)
There's also the key institutional question: what happens when a newspaper which prides itself on honesty and accuracy hires someone entirely without ethics or a conscience, and who thinks nothing of fabricating stories when it might be easier to actually put in the work of reporting them?
Grant's documentary raises some of these questions, but it does so by having other interview subjects raise them so Grant doesn't have to confront Blair head-on. It's possible that she's trying the Errol Morris trick of letting a subject impeach himself with his own words, but I came away with the unnerving sense that Grant has swallowed Blair's bullshit justifications whole.
There's a key moment, early in the movie, when Blair declares the only reason journalists don't routinely plagiarize and fabricate stories is because they know they'll get caught. This is of course untrue; most journalists would be repulsed by the thought of even being suspected of such activity. Blair - who seems to my untrained eye a textbook example of a sociopath - simply believes everyone thinks as he does. Errol Morris would have at least pushed for clarification, but Grant doesn't even follow it up.
It's also difficult to imagine someone making a documentary about a fabrication scandal at the Times without ever mentioning the name of Judith Miller, whose spreading of Bush Administration lies about Iraq's nuclear program was happening around the same time as Blair's flameout and was a far greater blow to the newspaper's credibility than any of Blair's bogus stories.
There's also some strangeness around the way the film relates certain elements of its story. Consider the way A Fragile Trust handles the testimony of San Antonio journalist Macarena Hernandez, whose realization that Blair had lifted most of her profile of a local woman and passed it off as his own reporting was the first link in the chain that exposed his deceptions. It turns out Hernandez actually knows Blair; they had interned at the Times together in the summer of 1999.
Grant never quite clarifies their relationship, or asks Blair why he would be so foolish as to copy from someone who actually knew him. Surely when making a documentary about one of the worst journalists in recent history, one should aspire to more than simple competence.