Picking Up the Pieces
The New Republic screens "Shattered Glass" and holds a Q&A about Stephen Glass, the movie, and the magazine.
6:00 AM, Oct 31, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
THE NEW REPUBLIC and its editor-in-chief Marty Peretz, along with Lions Gate Films, hosted a screening of the new movie "Shattered Glass" in Washington Thursday night. Afterwards, Peretz, Peter Beinart, the magazine's present editor, Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's longtime literary editor, and the film's screenwriter and director, Billy Ray, answered questions from an audience of friends and colleagues concerning the film's depiction of the Stephen Glass scandal that rocked the magazine in May of 1998.
The first comments concerned the fact-checking processes in operation during Glass's tenure at the New Republic. Ray commented that the system was not designed to guard against fraud, but to verify facts reported in good faith. "I think we're letting ourselves off the hook," said Peretz. "Years ago, my wife said to me, 'I'm not reading Stephen Glass anymore.'" The details of Glass's reporting, related Peretz, were "too cute" for his wife to believe. Peretz cited the particularly novelistic example of portable urinals mentioned by Glass in one article, which the young reporter wrote were used by police officers working their beat. "I think if you go through all the stories from beginning to end," said Peretz, "you will find a medley of assertions that defy the imagination."
"I'm embarrassed," admitted Peretz, "because I laughed with everybody else when there was an altar to George H.W. Bush" in one of Glass's stories. People building shrines to their favorite political and business leaders (Alan Greenspan, Paul Tsongas) were in fact a recurring motif in Glass's reportage.
One humorous moment in the Q&A concerned a scene from the movie in which the staff members are circling every comma in an issue of the magazine, under orders from Peretz, who'd said the staff was using the comma ungrammatically. "My son said," commented Peretz, "I came off like a comma fascist," a charge to which he pleaded guilty.
Harsh words for the movie's eponymous antihero were abundant. "An uncommonly hollow individual," said Wieseltier, also calling Glass "an escape artist." The literary editor thought Glass had gotten away with fabricating for so long before being caught because he "specialized in stories that . . . no one really cared about." These articles, he said, contained "no ideas" and were written in a style that emphasized "attitude" and the writer's own voice.
In several comments, Peretz sounded apologetic. "I have to confess to feeling sorry for Steve when Chuck Lane called me," to inform Peretz, who at the time was the sole owner of the magazine, of the fabrications that got Glass fired. "I found myself hoping it was the only story" to contain fabrications, said Peretz referring to the famous "Jukt Micronics" article Glass wrote that was exposed as complete fiction by Adam Penenberg, a technology reporter for Forbes Digital Tool. The exposure of this article led to an internal investigation at the New Republic into every story Glass had written, as well as investigations at several other magazines for whom Glass had written.
ONE AUDIENCE MEMBER asked what the editors had thought about the Jayson Blair scandal that had brought similar disgrace to the New York Times earlier this year. "I confess," said Peretz, "to having felt a little schadenfreude about the Times . . . because it's so haughty in the way it lectures" others. Indeed, Peretz said he found the affair "a tiny bit gratifying," but that "what it revealed" was "a patronizing attitude about black journalists" at the Times.
Another audience member asked whether the magazine was trading on the scandal for attention, referencing a recent issue in which Stephen Glass was pictured on the magazine's cover for a story about the scandal and political journalism. "We actually paid [Billy Ray] to make this movie," answered Peretz sarcastically.
Peter Beinart piped in to say that commenting on the Stephen Glass story fit with the magazine's basic job of commenting on public issues. "We thought: 'Why not write a story about some of the issues at play?'"
Pressed by the author of this article on whether publicly associating themselves with a film that depicts a shameful episode for the magazine was the right thing to do, Beinart defended the decision, saying, "It's a good movie." Had it been something trashy or less than "respectful of the magazine's tradition," they would not have been involved, he said.
The Glass scandal was certainly "traumatic" and "a low point in the magazine's history," continued Beinart. Wieseltier commented then that "If I had to write a history of disgraces at the New Republic, endorsing Henry Wallace," the onetime New Republic editor and a vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, for president in 1948 "would have to come in first."
Informed by Peretz that the magazine had never endorsed Wallace, Wieseltier retracted, "then the Stephen Glass story would have to rank first."
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.