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.