The Fake News BEFORE Fake News! The Fascinating Story of Stephen Glass.

Anyone who has seen the movie “Shattered Glass”, will be familiar with the story of disgraced “The New Republic” editor & journalist, Steohen Glass. The fascination, at least for me as a blogger isn’t that he faked many of his articles, but that he got away with it for so long! And in so many articles! We now live in a mad media world of “fake news” and “alternate facts”, where false reporting, inaccuracies, assumptions, and outright lies are part of the journalistic jungle we must hack our way through daily. But even in an era renowned for it’s fakeness and excesses, Glass was an anomaly! The shame of it is…he has a great sense of humour; comes up with clever titles for his pieces; and he’s obviously got a great creative imagination…but used in the wrong way! There is a huge divide between reportage – especially when you are being paid to report accurately on events – and short story writing…something Stephen found out the hard way!

Stephen Randall Glass was born in 1972, to a Jewish family in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. As early as 1990, Glass was already proficient at the art of orchestration & fabrication! In 1990, as a high-school senior in the North Shore Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Stephen Glass—a theater-lover—had served as a technical director of Stunts, a group of talented students who produced their own work. (One production involved a Washington journalist caught up in a web of conspiracy and corruption.) The yearbook pictured Glass, directing the movements of the cast through a headset. “Stephen Glass,” read the caption, “peruses the script, ready to call the scenes, sets, and props.” Not that many years later, Glass would present other elaborate orchestrations of made-up scenes and characters, this time passing them off as journalism! (6). He attended the University of Pennsylvania from 1990-1994. His tenure as executive-editor of the universities student newspaper The DailyPennsylvanian wasn’t without its dramas! In one incident, an entire issue of the newspaper was stolen by the student body who objected to the commentsry & coverage by it’s columnists. According to Samuel Hugges in “Through a Glass Darkly” this storm in a teacup was no  ore than that Glass  hadn’t publicly praised his own staff, the scores of students who worked under him, “laboring to all hours in the night in their idealistic quest for truth, justice, and the American way.” (1). Then there was the ‘infamous’ water buffalo incident, a controversy at the in 1993, in which Jewish student Eden Jacobowitz was charged with violating the university’s racial harassment policy. The incident received widespread publicity as part of the increasing trend of political correctness in the United States in the 1990s. (2). Glass graduated from Penn in 1994, and then joined “The New Republic” in 1995 as an editorial assistant. Progressing to features writing, the 23-year-old, though employed full-time by TNR, also wrote for other magazines, including “Policy Review”, “George”, “Rolling Stone”, and “Harpers”. He also contributed to Public Radio International’s weekly hour-long program This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass (no relation to Stephen).

So what happened? What could have transformed the likeable, talented, high-minded young editor who was constantly asking people “Are you mad at me?” into a spinner of mendacious and increasingly whacked-out yarns about churches whose members believed that George Bush was the reincarnation of Christ and shopping-mall Santas whose fear of child-molestation suits led to a Union of Concerned Santas and Easter Bunnies? Not to mention less amusing brands of plagiarism and invention, one of which prompted George editor John F. Kennedy, Jr., to send a letter to Vernon Jordan, apologizing for a Glass-spun quote about Jordan’s sexual preferences. (1).

Despite being highly liked by staff at TNR, there were increasing rebuttals of his quotes, facts and events from the subjects of his articles. This lead to an eroding of his credibility, and a scepticism about his reportage from the nagazines insiders. 

In December 1996, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was the target of a hostile article by Glass called “Hazardous to Your Mental Health” (article not available online). CSPI wrote a letter to the editor and issued a press release pointing out numerous inaccuracies and distortions, and even hinted at possible plagiarism. The organization Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) accused Glass of falsehoods in his March 1997 article “Don’t You D.A.R.E.” (4).

In May 1997, Joe Galli of the College Republican National Committee wrote a letter to the editor accusing Glass of fabrications in “Spring Breakdown” (5), his lurid tale of drinking and debauchery at the 1997 Conservative Political Action Conference. A June 1997 article called “Peddling Poppy” (article not available online), about a Hofstra University conference on George H. W. Bush drew a letter to the editor from Hofstra reciting Glass’s errors. The New Republic, however, stood by and defended him. Editor Michael Kelly wrote an angry letter to CSPI calling them liars and demanding the organization apologize to Glass. (3).
When Glass was finally caught in May 1998, he had risen to become an associate editor at The New Republic. The story that triggered his downfall was “Hack Heaven,” (7), which appeared in the issue dated May 18, 1998. It concerned a supposed 15-year-old hacker who intruded into the computer network of a company called “Jukt Micronics,” which allegedly then hired the teen as an information security consultant.

As with several of Glass’s previous stories, “Hack Heaven” depicted events that were almost cinematically vivid and told in present tense, implying that Glass was there as the action took place. The article opened as follows:
“Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, is throwing a tantrum. “I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Men comic [book] number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy—and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money! …” Across the table, executives from a California software firm called Jukt Micronics are listening and trying ever so delicately to oblige. “Excuse me, sir,” one of the suits says tentatively to the pimply teenager. “Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting you, sir. We can arrange more money for you.””

Fake Jukt Micronics website concocted by Glass
Upon the publication of “Hack Heaven,” Adam Penenberg, a reporter with Forbes magazine’s digital division, undertook the task of verifying it, initially to find out how The New Republic had managed to scoop Forbes. Penenberg immediately became suspicious when he was unable to find a single search engine result for “Jukt Micronics.” Further contact with several government agencies solidified his suspicions that Glass had fabricated the entire story. More suspicious was the fact that “Jukt Micronics” only had one phone line, and its website turned out to be an amateur AOL webpage, which seemed very odd for a supposedly big-time software company!
When Penenberg and Forbes confronted The New Republic, Glass claimed to have been duped by Restil. Lane had Glass travel with him to Bethesda, Maryland, to visit the Hyatt hotel where Restil had supposedly met with the Jukt Micronics executives and the room where the conference had supposedly been held. Despite Glass’s assurances, Lane discovered that on the day of the alleged meeting the conference room had been close. Afterwards, Lane dialed a Palo Alto number for Jukt Micronics provided by Glass and eventually had a phone conversation with a man who identified himself as George Sims, a Jukt executive. This was the first piece of evidence substantiating Glass’s article. However, Lane learned from a passing remark by another of his editors that Glass had a brother at Stanford University, located adjacent to Palo Alto. Realizing that Glass’s brother was posing as Sims, Lane immediately fired Glass.
Lane offered this explanation for the scandal:
“We extended normal human trust to someone who basically lacked a conscience… We busy, friendly folks, were no match for such a willful deceiver… We thought Glass was interested in our personal lives, or our struggles with work, and we thought it was because he cared. Actually, it was all about sizing us up and searching for vulnerabilities. What we saw as concern was actually contempt.”
— Charles Lane (8)
The New Republic subsequently determined that at least 27 of the 41 articles Glass wrote for the magazine contained fabricated material. Some of the 27, such as “Don’t You D.A.R.E.”, contained real reporting interwoven with fabricated quotations and incidents, while others, including “Hack Heaven”, were completely made up. In the process of creating the “Hack Heaven” article, Glass had gone to especially elaborate lengths to thwart the discovery of his deception by TNR’s fact checkers: creating a shell website, and voice mail account for Jukt Micronics; fabricating notes of story gathering, having fake business cards printed; and even composing editions of a fake computer hacker community newsletter.

Stephen Glass is still retracting his fabricated stories — 18 years later

As for the balance of the 41 stories, Lane, in an interview given for the 2005 DVD edition of Shattered Glass, said, “In fact, I’d bet lots of the stuff in those other 14 is fake too. … It’s not like we’re vouching for those 14, that they’re true. They’re probably not either.” Rolling Stone, George, and Harper’s also re-examined his contributions. Rolling Stone and Harper’s found the material generally accurate yet maintained they had no way of verifying information because Glass had cited anonymous sources. George discovered that at least three of the stories Glass wrote for it contained fabrications. Specifically, Glass fabricated quotations in a profile piece and apologized to the article’s subject, Vernon Jordan, an adviser to then-President Bill Clinton. A court filing for Glass’s application to the California bar gave an updated count on his journalism career: 36 of his stories at The New Republic were said to be fabricated in part or in whole, along with three articles for George, two articles for Rolling Stone, and one for Policy Review.

After journalism, Glass earned a law degree, at Georgetown University Law Center. He then passed the New York State bar examination in 2000, but the Committee of Bar Examiners refused to certify him on its moral fitness test, citing ethics concerns related to his plagiarism. He later abandoned his efforts to be admitted to the bar in New York.

In 2003, Glass published a so-called “biographical novel”, The Fabulist. Glass sat for an interview with the weekly news program 60 Minutes timed to coincide with the release of his book. The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, complained, “The creep is doing it again. Even when it comes to reckoning with his own sins, he is still incapable of nonfiction. The careerism of his repentance is repulsively consistent with the careerism of his crimes.”[23] One reviewer of The Fabulist commented, “The irony—we must have irony in a tale this tawdry—is that Mr. Glass is abundantly talented. He’s funny and fluent and daring. In a parallel universe, I could imagine him becoming a perfectly respectable novelist—a prize-winner, perhaps, with a bit of luck.”
Also in 2003, Glass briefly returned to journalism, writing an article about Canadian marijuana laws for Rolling Stone. On November 7, 2003, Glass participated in a panel discussion on journalistic ethics at George Washington University, along with the editor who had hired him at The New Republic, Andrew Sullivan, who accused Glass of being a “serial liar” who was using “contrition as a career move.

“It was very painful for me. It was like being on a guided tour of the moments of my life I am most ashamed of.” Stephen’s reaction to the release of “Shattered Glass”

The feature film about the scandal, Shattered Glass, was released in October 2003 and depicted a stylized view of Glass’s rise and fall at The New Republic. It was directed by Billy Ray, and starred Hayden Christensen as Glass, Peter Sarsgaard as Charles Lane, and Hank Azaria as Michael Kelly. The film, appearing shortly after The New York Times suffered a similar plagiarism scandal with the discovery of Jayson Blair’s fabrications, occasioned critiques of the journalism industry itself by nationally prominent journalists such as Frank Rich and Mark Bowden.
Glass was out of the public eye for several years following the release of his novel and Ray’s film. In 2007, he was performing with a Los Angeles comedy troupe known as Un-Cabaret, and Ray told Vanity Fair that Glass was employed at a law firm, apparently as a paralegal.
In 2015, Glass again made the news after reportedly sending Harper’s Magazine a check for $10,000 – what he was paid for the false articles – writing in the attached letter that he wanted “to make right that part of my many transgressions…I recognize that repaying Harper’s will not remedy my wrongdoing, make us even, or undo what I did wrong. That said, I did not deserve the money that Harper’s paid me and it should be returned.”

References:

  1. http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/1198/hughes.html
  2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_buffalo_incident
  3. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Glass
  4. http://www.marijuanalibrary.org/NR_DARE_030397.html
  5. http://wp.lps.org/akabour/files/2013/12/Spring-Breakdown-Stephen-Glass.pdf
  6. http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/1998/09/bissinger199809
  7. http://wp.lps.org/akabour/files/2013/12/Hack-Heaven-Stephen-Glass.pdf
  8. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1509330

Further Reading

    Stephen Glass’ New Republic fraud still haunts his law career

    Tim Alderman (2017)

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