The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

* 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.