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Home > Publications > Quill > Ten with Samantha Grant



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Friday, December 20, 2013
Ten with Samantha Grant

Quill poses 10 questions to people with some of the coolest jobs in journalism

By Scott Leadingham

Jayson Blair. Itís a name that evokes two immediate responses: lies and The New York Times. More than 10 years after the biggest ethics debacle in journalismís modern day, Samantha Grant is trying to show that thereís much more to the story. Her film, ďA Fragile Trust,Ē chronicles the lead-up to and aftermath of the ďBlair Affair.Ē Itís been making the rounds at film festivals in 2013 and will receive wider release and distribution in 2014.

Grant is passionate about the topic and about highlighting the case as an oddity among journalism institutions. The New York Times took some much deserved heat for its handling, but Grant shows in the film that what you may remember being reported about the scandal isnít necessarily the full story ó or completely accurate. Though itís gaining traction now, the film traces its roots back seven years to Grantís graduate work at UC Berkeley, a formal journalism education she started at age 30.

See More:

-On Twitter: @SamanthaGrant

-Movie info and trailer: AFragileTrust.com

Why this film, why now?

When I started working on the film, it just seemed like a documentary filmmakerís dream in terms of a strong character and arc. And thereís a larger cultural story. All these issues that come up in the film can come up in terms of what is discussed. Media literacy and media ethics donít usually come up in the public.

You call yourself a ďthird-generation journalist.Ē Did your parents try to convince you into or dissuade you from the industry? Or did you pick up journalism on your own?

(My dad) worked very hard. He was an old school, hard-drinking, hard-working, word-slinging journalist. He wasn't very healthy. He died when I was 5.

This idea of what it meant to be a journalist loomed wide in my mind. His father also worked at the Brooklyn Eagle. I would always hear from my mom, ďWow, youíre just like your dad.Ē As a young child, it didn't feel like something I wanted to do. He would work all night long until the sun rose. It just seemed kind of crazy to me. I thought I was going to be a doctor. I got to college and started studying pre-med and was not finding the kind of meaning.

Something thatís worth thinking about thatís come up as Iíve been working on this film is the question of whether an independent filmmaker is a journalist. I do consider the work that I do journalism. I think my passion for journalism has certainly grown over the course of making this film. It has only made me love journalism even more. It has enhanced my experience.

Did you learn anything particularly surprising or shocking about Jayson Blair that the public record didnít already show?

There are two. This incident is not representative of journalism. This incident of the Blair Affair is of a very specific, isolated moment that was the result of everything happening at one time (at the Times). Second, it was reported that Gerald Boyd was Jayson Blairís mentor, and that was incorrect.

Gerald Boyd was the managing editor at the time this scandal happened. He was the first African-American managing editor at the Times. When the scandal happened, Iím not even sure where it came from, people started reporting that he had been a personal mentor (to Blair). It was an assumption that was made perhaps because both are African-American in a predominately white institution. Based on everything Iíve learned, that is not the case.

(Gerald) losing his job at the Times was devastating. According to his widow, the fact that he was linked to Jayson Blair was even more devastating. That was something that completely crushed him. (He died before Samantha Grant was able to interview him for the film.)

What lessons are we to take from, as you call it, the ďBlair AffairĒ?

One of the things people should think about is if you are a part of the reading public, and you come across something that is not correct, you should let the publication know. You should take an active role in correcting the information. As I say, Jayson Blair is an anomaly. He is not representative of 99.9 percent of journalists out there.

I think we should also remember that we need institutional journalism now more than ever. And institutions like The New York Times are essential. It takes an institution to go up against a government or corporations. An individual canít, or itís very hard to do on their own. The film paints a portrait of this very hallowed institution and shows that it has some flaws, and itís run by humans, who are inherently flawed.

Youíre also doing an interactive game, Decisions on Deadline. Whatís that about?

An educational journalism game where players are reporters working on a story and are faced with ethical dilemmas through the course of their work. And depending on what they decide, the game changes. Itís an online game and in the real world.

See More:

-On Twitter: @SamanthaGrant

-Movie info and trailer: AFragileTrust.com

What do you think needs to be done to plagiarists and fabricators in journalism? Should it be a one-strike-and-youíre-out offense? Is it situational?

Iím glad that Iím not an editor and that I donít have to make these decisions. Outright plagiarism and fabrication are prohibited. That being said, I donít really know. Iím not sure what the appropriate response is.

Itís no secret that plagiarists in journalism or just any academic setting are scorned, fired, flunked, etc. But people still do it. Does that suggest that such ďdeath sentencesĒ arenít an effective deterrence?

Itís really a complicated question, because the question really is, why do people lie? And people have very different reasons, excuses and motivations for that behavior. And why do people do it? I have no idea. Journalists are human beings, and thatís complicated.

Thereís a conventional wisdom that suggests plagiarism is easier or more widespread now because of so much free, quickly available information online. But isnít that a little anecdotal? Isnít it also far easier and faster to detect for the same reason?

Right. Thereís no question that thereís more reporting about plagiarism now. But thereís also more reporting about everything else now. As far as it being easier to detect, thatís true. I think the widespread deception that took place in the Blair case would be very hard these days. And the circumstances were very specific to that moment in time.

Iím curious what you think of Stephen Glass, perhaps the second most infamous plagiarism/fabulism case behind Blair. Glass has graduated from law school and is petitioning the state of California to let him practice law in the state. Should he be a lawyer?

(Laughs) Can you just write ďlaughterĒ? Iím going to stay away from that hot potato.

This has nothing to do with the film, but Iím always curious: If you could get news from only one source for the rest of your life, what would it be?

This is a very interesting answer. The truth is, I always go to The New York Times first. I live in California, and I still get it in print and read it online. I believe in institutional journalism, and I believe in the Times.

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