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Stopping Stephen Glass

The new movie "Shattered Glass" believes that Stephen Glass's mad genius made it impossible to stop him before he was caught. There is evidence to suggest otherwise.

11:00 PM, Oct 30, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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"SHATTERED GLASS" is a slim, reedy film. It presents the now-familiar story of Stephen Glass as a cautionary tale and then offers up a hero in the person of Chuck Lane, the New Republic editor who fired Glass. As a journalism movie, "Shattered Glass" is middle-rank, not up to the standards of "The Insider" or "Live from Baghdad," but better than, say, "I Love Trouble." It is too parochial to find a broad audience and too slight to win any major awards.

And yet, it is an important movie to discuss because it attempts to pull an ugly trick: While "Shattered Glass" presents itself as an exposé of journalism's sins, it is actually a carefully prepared whitewash.

THE STEPHEN GLASS of "Shattered Glass" is an effete, unstable sycophant. Played with surprising dexterity by Hayden Christensen (one suspects that in hell actors are forced to work with George Lucas over and over), Glass walks, shoeless, around the office ladling out compliments, asking people if they are "mad" at him, and playing all sides. He pledges complete allegiance to New Republic editor Michael Kelly (played by Hank Azaria) and makes an enormous show of anger when Kelly is fired. He's then the first person through the door to suck up to Kelly's replacement, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard).

He also displays a clear understanding of professional rank. The character Glass is obsequious towards his superiors, self-effacing with his peers, and condescending and puffed up around his juniors. He embodies every loathsome quality of the Washington career climber and for this is rewarded with respect from his colleagues and prestigious assignments from bigger, richer magazines.

He is also depicted as a mad genius. Glass dazzles the staff at his magazine with improbable story ideas--among them a young Republican orgy, a cult devoted to Alan Greenspan, and finally, a computer hacker named Ian Restil, who extorts thousands of dollars from a software behemoth called Jukt Micronics.

The Jukt story attracts the attention of Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), a reporter for Forbes Digital Tool, who begins hunting for Jukt and Restil. Penenberg first believes that Glass has been snookered by a group of prankster hackers, but then comes to realize that the Jukt story is deliberate fiction. With a big assist from Forbes, Lane finally confronts Glass and decides to fire him, over the strenuous objections of Glass's colleague and close friend, Caitlin Avey (Chloë Sevigny). The film's closing moments show Glass having a full-blown breakdown and Lane being received as a conquering hero by Avey and the rest of the New Republic staff.

OF COURSE, there is no "Caitlin Avey." Those who have followed the Glass saga will see in Avey an amalgam of Glass's former friends Hanna Rosin and Jonathan Chait. But "Shattered Glass" fictionalizes nearly every character outside of Glass, Penenberg, Kelly, and Lane (with the notable exception of Marty Peretz, who is mostly an off-screen presence) and it is here that the movie makes its first wrong turn. There was a strange dynamic at work in the offices of the New Republic--Rosin admits that after she heard Glass had been fired she "marched into Chuck's office and all but called him an asshole . . ." She must not have been the only person on staff to have had an opinion. What were the outspoken and forthright Leon Wieseltier's feelings on the subject? How about serial plagiarist Ruth Shalit, who was still at the magazine? But instead of telling us exactly who said what, "Shattered Glass" offers only fictionalized supporting characters.

In the movie these fictionalized characters create a culture that clearly enables Glass. Yet director Billy Ray admirably refuses to let him off the hook by blaming his parents or using some other false alibi. In the movie, the responsibility for the entire affair falls on just one person: Stephen Glass.

And yet, if you step outside "Shattered Glass" and into the real world, the picture becomes more complicated because Glass was not a genius who fooled everyone. In fact, there were lots of people who Glass never fooled. There was evidence that he was making up his stories almost from the very start. And to find this evidence, one needn't have looked any further than the New Republic's Correspondence page.

TOWARDS THE BEGINNING OF THE MOVIE, Michael Kelly gets a letter accusing Glass of fabricating one of his stories. Kelly huddles with Glass and, after making a brief phone call to check, dismisses the letter writer's complaint.

What "Shattered Glass" doesn't tell you is that the New Republic was frequently receiving letters to the editor pointing out Glass's problems. Here's a sample:

* In the May 13, 1996 issue, Craig Schultz, of the Congressional Management Foundation, wrote, "Glass attributed to the Congressional Management Foundation the statement that caseworkers work an average of fifty-two hours weekly. But we've never compiled caseworker-hour data."

* In the May 5, 1997 issue, Joe Galli, the College Republican National Committee chairman, wrote that Glass's "Spring Breakdown" "was filled with fairy-tale stories and flagrant distortions. I question Stephen Glass's news-gathering capabilities and journalistic integrity. I attended the CPAC conference and, to my knowledge, none of the fantasy tales he told occurred."

About the same story David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, wrote that Glass was "quite a fiction writer, but not much of a reporter."

* In the July 14, 1997 / July 21, 1997 issue, one of Glass's subjects, Gil Troy, wrote, "Regarding Glass's claim that I 'airily' dismissed a question about Mrs. Bush's role in the 1992 campaign, the official tape of the session did not record any such question."

* In the August 4, 1997 issue, Glenn Levant, the director of D.A.R.E., wrote, "The only verifiable allegation in the article was false, further indicating your reporter's bias and lack of fact-checking at the source."

Stephen Glass worked at the New Republic for 29 months and wrote 41 pieces. During his most prolific period, which spanned19 months, he was charged with fabrication 7 times, and accused of serious journalistic error 4 times. (And these are just the letters that made it to publication. Who knows how many private phone calls or notes were sent to the magazine--Peretz's own wife told him that she didn't believe Glass's writing was legit.) In a letter that appeared in the magazine after Glass was fired, Jean Becker, an aide to President Bush, wrote, "I knew he was a fraud a year ago. . . . The article was about President George Bush. As his chief of staff at that time, I found the article rather amazing. Mr. Glass quoted people who claimed to be close to the president but whom neither I nor anyone else I checked with had ever heard of."

Why didn't Becker write in at the time? "I assumed you would not consider me an objective reader," he explained, "so you would not listen to what I had to say."

Where would Becker ever have gotten that idea.

ON SIX OCCASIONS charges of journalistic error and fraud were so serious that Glass was forced to pen responses on the Correspondence page. In the face of these accusations, New Republic editors allowed Glass to poleax those who had been brave enough to come forward.

In the December 30, 1996 issue, Glass published "Hazardous to Your Mental Health," a story about the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The Center's chairwoman, Kathleen O'Reilly, wrote in enumerating Glass's many errors. Glass began his response this way: "My article contended that CSPI cloaks shoddy research and hysteria under the banner of science. Kathleen O'Reilly's letter offers further proof of my thesis."

In the June 9, 1997 issue, Glass published "Peddling Poppycock," an account of a conference on George Bush at Hofstra University. William Levantrosser, from Hofstra, wrote in, again pointing out Glass's numerous errors. Glass responded with an ad hominem attack on the school, snorting, "if you have to advertise in Times Square that you're in-the-loop, you're not."

Taken by themselves, or even in small bunches, none of these examples should be enough to spook a reasonable editor. Good editors look at the case of Stephen Glass and think, "There but by the grace of God." A smart writer who is unconcerned about his future could pass fiction off on the best editor once or twice or perhaps even five times. Who knows where the bright line is? But surely it is less than 27, the number of faked stories Glass published. Surely seven charges of fabrication by story subjects should be enough. Surely the need to respond to letters 6 times in 19 months should have woken someone up.

"SHATTERED GLASS" wants you to believe that Stephen Glass was a neurotic mastermind, against whose wiles editors were powerless. But his editors--all smart, talented, honorable people--shared a failing which the movie refuses to acknowledge. There is a particular type of journalist who spurns the input of outsiders and believes that there is no truth beyond his magazine's horizon. The impulse to dismiss those who argue with our words as acting out of political disagreement or bad faith is a failing many of us share. It is an impulse which must be fought.

Take, for example, Michael Kinsley. Kinsley, a former New Republic editor, was running Slate when Glass was fired. At the time Kinsely derisively described those who questioned the New Republic's editors as "hindsight artists" and bragged that Slate didn't employ fact checkers. "We do have a group of people whose duties include making sure our writers are as accurate as possible. They are called 'writers.' And we have another group of people who skeptically examine what our writers produce and try to catch errors of fact. . . . These people are called 'editors.'"

Then, in 2001, readers and other outsiders suspected that Slate had it's own Glass in the form of Jay Forman's "monkeyfishing" stories. Kinsley took an aggressive, nearly belligerent, line of defense. "The accusation is that Slate published a fraudulent story," he thundered. "Where's the evidence?" Twelve days later, a team of New York Times reporters supplied the evidence. The Slate headline: "Slate now concedes that key details of the article in question were fabricated." Editors should embrace, not concede, the truth.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: The New Republic is a good and important magazine; it is better and healthier today than it was five years ago. And reporters and editors will always make mistakes. The good ones fix them by working graciously with those who point them out.

"Shattered Glass" wants you to believe that there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent Stephen Glass from doing what he did. That may be true. But he should have been stopped much, much sooner.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.