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INDEPENDENT LENS: A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power And Jayson Blair At The New York Times

Airs Monday, May 5, 2014 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Jayson Blair is the journalist who incited the worst plagiarism scandal in modern journalism.

"A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, And Jayson Blair At The New York Times" is a portrait of an infamous serial plagiarist and an investigation of the massive scandal he unleashed that rocked not only The New York Times but the entire world of journalism. Produced and directed by Samantha Grant, "A Fragile Trust" premieres on the PBS series INDEPENDENT LENS, hosted by Stanley Tucci, on Monday, May 5, 2014 on PBS.

Courtesy of Samantha Grant

The New York Times

Courtesy of INDEPENDENT LENS/ PBS

Howell Raines was the Executive Editor of The New York Times during the Blair scandal.

Courtesy of INDEPENDENT LENS/ PBS

Lena Williams a veteran New York Times journalist and Newspaper Guild representative.

Courtesy of INDEPENDENT LENS/ PBS

Macarena Hernandez is a journalist and educator who, like Blair, also got her start at The New York Times.

In 2003, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was discovered to have boldly plagiarized the work of other reporters and supplemented his own reporting with fabricated details in dozens of published stories. The ensuing media frenzy was an unprecedented blow for the paper that, just a year earlier, had won a record seven Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of 9/11. The daily operations of the Times newsroom soon became a public spectacle as every major news outlet picked up the story.

The fact that Blair is African American was emphasized again and again as accounts of the “Blair Affair” served up a soap opera-style tale of deception, drug abuse, racism, mental illness, white guilt and power struggles inside the hallowed halls of the Times. Accusations of favoritism, lowered standards for minorities and an editor gone rogue were hotly debated by pundits. Ultimately, the scandal ended the careers of two top Times editors and changed standards in newsrooms everywhere.

"A Fragile Trust" features an exclusive and revealing interview with Blair — the first time he has spoken about his actions at the Times since the weeks immediately following the scandal. In addition, Blair provided unprecedented access to his notes, reflections and even his private email account from the months leading up to the discovery of the scandal. When asked why he agreed to participate in the film, he wrote, “I became convinced that while the documentary would hardly be flattering to me, it would provide the depth that would answer some questions people had, including me.”

Starting with the plagiarized article that ultimately led to his undoing, the film traces Blair’s spectacular rise and fall as he desperately clings to his career even as his lies and deceptions mount. Also featured are interviews with several of his Times colleagues and editors, who share their insights about how Blair’s flagrant transgressions went unnoticed for so long. With more and more publications moving to online-only formats and plagiarism on the rise, this cautionary tale about the slippery slope of ethical transgressions is more relevant than ever.

Past episodes of INDEPENDENT LENS are available for online viewing. INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter. "A Fragile Trust" is on Facebook, and you can follow @samanthagrant on Twitter.

Preview for A Fragile Trust

The stunning story of Jayson Blair, a promising young African American reporter who became entangled in a plagiarism scandal, with the ensuing media frenzy leaving The New York Times with a major blemish and leading to heated debates about racism, drug abuse, mental illness, and journalistic power struggles.

Jayson Blair: A Little From Here and a Little From There

In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary "A Fragile Trust," Jayson Blair provides further insight into how he plagiarized so readily, using technological tools to deceive his editors and fellow reporters at The New York Times.

Jayson Blair on Where It All Began to Fall Apart

In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary "A Fragile Trust," former journalist Jayson Blair himself recounts his thought process when it came to plagiarizing other articles in order to avoid firsthand research, specifically for the story of then-missing Army Specialist Edward Anguiano.

Howell Raines, Change Agent

In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary "A Fragile Trust," former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines explains how he saw himself as a change agent who had to “respond aggressively to the technological revolution that was overtaking newspapers.” The clip also features author Seth Mnookin (Hard News) and Jayson Blair on how Raines’ edict may have lead to subsequent issues.