SURE, STEPHEN GLASS MADE STUFF UP AND EMBARRASSED HIS EDITORS AT THE NEW REPUBLIC. BUT ELIZABETH MCCAUGHEY FUDGED THE TRUTH AND SINGLEHANDEDLY DESTROYED CLINTON’S NATIONAL HEALTHCARE INITIATIVE. WHY DIDN’T ANYONE MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT HER?
The recent film Shattered Glass is a psychological drama that chronicles the downfall of Stephen Glass, the infamous New Republic journalist who fabricated over two dozen magazine articles before being fired in 1998. The film is dramatically absorbing, even (or especially) to a former New Republic intern like myself. Glass joined the magazine as an intern in 1995, a position I had held the previous year. I read his pieces closely, amazed at how he seemed to outdo every intern before or since. Now, of course, I know why.
Shattered Glass briskly recounts the events that resulted in Glass’s undoing. There is the article about a computer hacker who cracks the database of a software firm, only to be hired by the same company to improve its security. There are the journalists at Forbes Digital Tool, the website of Forbes magazine, whose suspicions are aroused after they are unable to verify any of the sources in the hacker piece. And there are the tense confrontations between Glass and Charles Lane, the former real-life editor of the New Republic. Glass responds to Lane’s growing skepticism with increasingly reckless falsehoods, going so far as to create phony voicemail-boxes and a web page for a made-up corporation, before finally breaking down and admitting the whole thing was fiction.
While the film is entertaining, one can’t help coming away with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. In part this has to do with how much attention Glass has already received. Before the movie there was Glass’s autobiographical novel The Fabulist (in which Glass narcissistically casts himself as a victim); prior to that Glass’s story had been told everywhere from Vanity Fair to CNN. Yet in spite of the sheer volume of coverage, there is a discouraging sameness to much of the discussion around Glass and, more broadly, around journalistic deception in general.
Both the film and the book make much of how Glass evaded the New Republic’s fact-checkers. Ironically, former TNR editor Michael Kinsley once wrote a famous debunking of magazine fact-checking. A fact is considered accurate if it first appeared in the New York Times or other papers—none of which employ checkers themselves. As Kinsley pointed out, the purpose of fact-checking isn’t so much accuracy as being able to blame someone else’s mistake.
By their very nature the film and Glass’s book are character-driven narratives, less concerned with examining the systemic loopholes that permitted Glass to stealthily thrive than they are with positing Glass’s psychological motivations. The same was true of his media coverage, which also took Glass’s pathologies and conflicted inner motives as the central topic of concern. Glass’s coverage, in this way, has not been unique. After New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was revealed to have fictionalized many facts and quotes, the issue was partly framed in political terms, as critics debated whether his paper’s affirmative action policy explained how Blair’s deceptions went unnoticed (Blair is African-American). But many more stories about Blair pushed psychological analysis to the breaking point, even detailing how often he cleaned his bathroom.
I don’t doubt that Glass (or Blair) was a disturbed individual. But our lingering fascination with fabricators’ troubled personae has prevented us from devoting an equal amount of attention to cases of journalistic mendacity where the psychological drama was less gripping, but the consequences were infinitely worse.
This is depressingly shortsighted. The worst journalistic transgression of the past decade wasn’t committed by Glass or Blair. It was committed by a celebrated public-policy writer named Elizabeth McCaughey. McCaughey also wrote for the New Republic in the mid-1990s. Her falsehoods had a far more disturbing outcome than Glass’s. But where his story has been endlessly publicized, hers briefly flickered in public attention before being forgotten.
Righting the balance is worth doing for its own sake. But justice aside, correcting the record also forces us to examine the biases that cause us to elevate some incidents of journalistic misconduct into undying scandals while ignoring others. To see the limits of our current approach, we need to use a different standard, one that goes beyond psychoanalyzing the fabricator and focuses on the fabrications themselves with an eye to answering this central question: what were the results?
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