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Friday, December 9, 2016

Why did you do it?

The movie opens with that question. In response, Jayson Blair makes a joke. “This one again,” he mutters, rolling his eyes in mock consternation at the predictability of it.

But predictable as it is and as long as he’s had to ponder it, Blair still ends up punting. “I don’t have a good answer for the question,” he acknowledges.

A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at the New York Times — it premieres this week on PBS; check your local listings — reintroduces us to the central figure in one of the great media scandals of all time, the one-time wunderkind who lied and plagiarized his way through a career on what is arguably the greatest stage in American journalism, The New York Times. He claimed to have been places he had not gone, to have interviewed people he had not met, to have witnessed scenes he had not seen. He stole the work of other reporters and passed it off as his own. And he did this dozens of times.

The question that opens the movie has pressed us ever since. Why?

At the time — spring, 2003 — some pundits claimed the scandal reflected an unseemly obsession with diversity, the supposed inability of white editors strait-jacketed by political correctness to confront a black reporter’s incompetence. Blair worked the other side of the street, claiming in a bizarre New York Observer interview that racism was a factor in his betrayal of the most basic ethical tenets of his profession.

Neither claim made much sense then. They seem preposterous now.

In her search for the answer to the question, filmmaker Samantha Grant follows Blair — now pushing 40 — through the life he has made since his old life crumbled. She takes us to the nondescript office where he works as, of all things, a life coach and to a university where he lectures skeptical students on — wait for it — journalistic ethics. Along the way, Blair and others reminisce about the then-27-year-old who duped the Times. We learn that he was a brown noser, an abuser of alcohol and drugs, had bipolar disorder and all the social maturity of a Muppet.

All useful details, but none of them answer that question. Why?