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Documentary revisits NY Times plagiarism scandal, talks ethics

By JR Ortega
Feb. 20, 2014 at 6:05 p.m.
Updated Feb. 20, 2014 at 8:21 p.m.

Jayson Blair agreed to be part of "A Fragile Trust," a documentary that delves deeper into a 2003 scandal in which he plagiarized stories in The New York Times.

IF YOU GO

The University of Houston-Victoria is hosting an evening event for an early premiere of the film, "A Fragile Trust," on April 15. A time and venue have not yet been chosen. For more information, contact UHV at 361-570-4848.

CAN'T ATTEND THE VICTORIA PREMIERE?

You can catch the airing of "A Fragile Trust" on PBS at 9 p.m. May 5.

The story is one that journalist Macarena Hernandez is pained to tell.

Since 2003, the details of how former The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair plagiarized her story has haunted the now University of Houston-Victoria endowed professor.

But come April, "A Fragile Trust," a GushProductions documentary about the scandal, will premiere in Victoria. Then in May, the award-winning, 75-minute film will air on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Though the story has been told many times before, Hernandez sees value in the documentary's overarching goal - the importance of ethical journalism.

"At first, most people will think, 'What more can you possibly say?' But this is covered through a very fresh filter," Hernandez said. "It's looking at the aftermath of someone's ethical lapses and its far-reaching consequences."

When the scandal erupted, Hernandez was the Rio Grande Valley bureau chief at the San Antonio Express News. She visited Los Fresnos, a small border town, to report on the family of Edward Anguiano, a soldier who went missing in Iraq.

Her story ran without any issues until she received a call from Blair, whom she interned with at The Times. Blair was working on the story, too, and mentioned how Anguiano's sister translated a quote her mother had said.

The problem - Anguiano's mother spoke English. That's when the red flags were raised.

"I just remember being very disappointed. I felt bad for the family," Hernandez recalled.

Within days after the plagiarism published, Blair, Hernandez and their publications became the story themselves.

Ultimately, Blair was fired, and more articles of his were found to be falsified.

In the years that followed, newspaper companies around the world began to review their own policies about fact-checking and attribution, Hernandez said. The scandal became the topic of journalism ethics courses as well.

This is how the documentary's director, Samantha Grant, first grabbed onto the story.

Grant began the project as part of her 2006 thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, where Hernandez completed her masters.

"I knew all about the Blair affair," Grant said. "I thought, 'Wow, this is a really interesting story,' and I hadn't heard much about it since then."

Grant started doing her research and made contact with Hernandez. The two talked about the scandal, and soon, Grant said, it became clear the subject would make an excellent documentary.

And now, almost seven years later, the documentary has received praise from film festivals internationally.

Undertaking the film was not easy, Grant said. It took more than a year of emails to Blair to finally hear back, and even then, building a relationship took time.

"Nobody wanted to talk about it," Grant said. "Everyone involved wishes it would go away."

It was Grant's approach, though, that made the film more than just a rehash of the scandal.

"One thing that I really wanted to make sure came through with the film was the fact that Jayson Blair is not representative of most journalists," Grant said. "People still hold this (the scandal) up as everything that is wrong with journalism, but this was a very unique set of circumstances."

For Grant, the true goal of the film is to teach others and help protect and preserve journalism as an institution.

To her, the journalism institutions are the only ones with enough manpower and clout to take on big institutions such as the government and corporations.

Grant's mentality, Hernandez said, is what makes telling the story over again less painful and more enlightening.

"She's a great example of perseverance," Hernandez said. "She wanted to tell a story."

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