Forgiving Jayson Blair
I’ve been thinking about forgiveness a lot recently. I interviewed Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt (Jesus, the consummate storyteller), and was so interested in what she’s learned teaching the Bible at a maximum security prison that I went to see her when I was in Nashville this past week. She told me some stories I’m not sure what to do with, stories of men who’ve committed heinous crimes nonetheless experiencing forgiveness, or becoming peacemakers in prison. How would I treat these people? How would society?
There’s a short story by David Brin where criminals cannot see the world around them, thanks to a kind of Google glass. Everyone wears them; criminals see other people as blurs, and can know nothing about them. Meanwhile, the rest of the society can look at them through their glasses and know that they are criminals, and shun them. But this futuristic Scarlet Letter is removed when their punishment ends, wiped from their records.
We don’t really do that in our society. Criminals often receive in effect two sentences; they serve their time, and then they continue to be punished, even treated as pariahs. They are often unable to vote, it’s very hard for people with a criminal record to get a job, and that’s not even the people who commit the kinds of crimes that get them put on lists, with notices sent to the neighborhood.
Journalists do something similar with people who aren’t criminals. In a way, it’s our job to ask people about the worst moments in their lives, repeatedly. A scandal, a public mistake, these become the moment that defines a person. I once heard a PR person warn an executive about the press and its tendency to ask “Do you still beat your wife?” questions. These have no good answer, even if you say you’ve never beaten your wife. We journalists are like secular Puritans. It isn’t true that we are only our self at our worst. But perhaps we need constant reminding to be better.
Friday night at the Excellence in Journalism conference I went to see A Fragile Trust, the documentary about Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was a serial fabricator and plagiarizer.
It’s a troubling story. In the end, I didn’t know what to think about Blair now. He’s a ‘life coach’ who says he has 200 clients, and I immediately thought, ‘sure he does.’ Doubt lingers.
In the movie, a reporter who was a New York Times intern with Blair, and whose story turned out to be the one that exposed Blair for what he was, called his actions “unforgivable.” She might not be able to forgive him, yet. But I had just listened to AJ Levine tell me about a murderer forgiven by the family of a person he killed. The New York Times survived the bad and sometimes deliberately deceptive work of Walter Duranty. It has survived Blair and Rick Bragg and Judith Miller and others who harmed its reputation at the start of the 21st century. It is not dead.
But who would want to see Jayson Blair reporting again? A friend who saw the movie, too, thought it was too nice to Blair, gave him too much time to justify his unjustifiable actions. I saw it differently, saw a man shattered in public, trying to move forward a different way. We live in a physical world, but who we are in it involves a mental construct, built from how we are perceived, how we think we are perceived, what we try to project, what we try to hide and other facets. Blair has to construct a story that lets him go on. As my friend said, his life experience might actually make him a good life coach for people. To circle back to forgiveness, though, we have to ask ourselves, could Blair work again as a journalist? If he had a good fact-checker, would all be forgiven?