The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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?

Then, at one point, Blair muses on the fact that many of his earliest mistakes were caught only because he reported them — which is the way things are routinely done in a business that is, after all, based largely on trust and trustworthiness. But that wasn’t the takeaway for Blair. He says:

“With lying or cheating or anything else, the myth of believing that you will be caught helps keep people from doing things that are unethical, because it doesn’t even cross your mind if you believe you will be caught. You don’t have to, through your willpower, stop yourself — or through your morality or ethics. But … once you cross that barrier where you know the chances are you won’t be caught, it becomes very hard to discipline yourself.”

His tone presumes anyone would do the same had they realized what he did. But is that really the way it is for most of us? If you had no fear of being caught, would you betray professional ethics? Break a window? Rob a store? Isn’t the answer, for most of us, no?

It is not that any of us is beyond temptation or that safeguards don’t matter. But for most of us, isn’t the biggest safeguard the fact that we consider ourselves moral people and there are certain things moral people do not do? Apparently, that mechanism is absent from Blair. So maybe what happened happened not because of skin color, substance abuse, mental illness or social immaturity but because he is defective, afflicted by a sociopathic inability to comprehend ordinary human mores. Maybe he did it because he could.

That’s the answer to the question. Or at least, it is as close as we are ever likely to come.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

AFP Photo/Ramin Talaie

Advertising

Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

Peggy Nienaber

YouTube Screenshot

Peggy Nienaber may provide her own downfall thanks to hubris. Rolling Stone revealed on Wednesday that the Christian fascist, who serves as vice president of the nonprofit anti-abortion group Faith & Liberty and serves as hate group Liberty Counsel’s executive director of D.C. Ministry, was caught bragging about praying with Supreme Court justices. While appearing on a livestream she didn’t realize was being recorded, Nienaber confirmed that she prays with some of the justices inside the Supreme Court itself.

“They will pray with us, those that like us to pray with them,” Nienaber said, adding with a laugh, “Some of them don’t!” This claim was backed up by the founder of the ministry that ultimately got absorbed into Liberty Counsel. Rob Schenck, who used to work alongside Nienaber, but has since renounced his actions. Yet from the late 1990s onward, he prayed with Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia in the Supreme Court itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Gov. Ron DeSantis

YouTube Screenshot

'We're not seeing a whole lot of common sense in his policies. He tends to toss aside serious ideas about climate change as just left-wing politics,' said Sierra Club Florida political director Luigi Guadarrama.

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has been energetically whittling away at civil rights in his state, pursuing anti-LGBTQ policies, pushing intolerance and censorship in schools, and restricting voting rights.

Keep reading... Show less
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}