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Stephen Glass' former colleagues say journalist's deception should have been obvious

Saturday, November 22, 2003

By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON -- Five years ago, Charles ("Chuck") Lane was certain he was finished as a journalist.

Hayden Christensen, left, stars with Chloe Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey in "Shattered Glass," a film that tells the story of how Stephen Glass fabricated articles for The New Republic. (Jonathan Wink)
Click photo for larger image.

As editor of The New Republic, a Washington-based weekly magazine known for its lively stories about politics and public policy, Lane discovered he had just published a totally fabricated article by Stephen Glass, who once was considered the publication's fastest rising star. That was bad enough, but Lane had a gut feeling "Hack Heaven" wasn't the only invented story the 25-year-old Glass had written for The New Republic.

Lane's gut turned out to be right. He launched an investigation and unearthed 27 articles Glass had written over three years that were partially or wholly made up. Like "Hack Heaven," which told the story of a preteen who was supposedly paid $1 million by a software company after hacking into its Web site, Glass' other works of fiction were filled with wildly colorful characters, scenes and tales.

Only a dozen of the stories had been published during Lane's tenure, but he figured he would be held responsible for Glass' journalistic outrages.

"The stories, in hindsight, seem so ludicrous," Lane said in a recent interview. "I was totally chagrined that I had published, as editor, 12 of these things. I really thought my career was over."

(AP Photo/CBS News)
Stephen Glass
Click photo for larger image.

Lane was wrong this time. Instead of being run out of journalism, he was lauded for investigating and firing Glass after an online magazine had tipped him that only one fact in "Hack Heaven" could be verified -- that Nevada was a state.

A short time later, Lane took a job with The Washington Post and today covers the Supreme Court for the paper. He's also the hero of a new film, "Shattered Glass," a largely factual account of Glass' fictionalizing at The New Republic, which opened yesterday in Pittsburgh.

Initially skeptical of the whole movie idea, Lane ended up as a consultant to director Billy Ray and earned about $12,000 for helping ensure the film's accuracy. Lane is played by Peter Sarsgaard.

Movie accurate

Others involved in the Glass saga agree that the movie is a faithful depiction of how a young reporter managed to deceive editors and colleagues at The New Republic, while writing vivid accounts about such things as drug- and sex-crazed young conservatives and a convention of novelty political wares, including a Monica Lewinsky-inspired condom, the "Monicondom." (One fabricated Glass story, which purported to be the first inside look at the world of White House interns amid revelations of Lewinsky's relationship with President Clinton, was published in the Post-Gazette in 1998 and later retracted.)

"The movie is a very accurate ... picture of The New Republic," said Martin Peretz, the magazine's stormy veteran editor in chief and chairman, who is played in the film by Ted Kotcheff.

Peretz said "Shattered Glass" presents a "flattering" portrait of the magazine because it focuses on how Glass was eventually caught and fired. And he wasn't particularly bothered by scenes that showed him bullying the staff into spending hours looking for misplaced punctuation. "Well, I am a comma fascist," he said. His one major complaint? "I looked a little too old. But I was marginal in the movie as it was unfolding."

Jonathan Chait, a New Republic senior editor who was Glass' best friend at the magazine five years ago, agreed that the movie "was highly accurate in recounting the details" of how Glass used an uncanny knack for playing to people's psyches to publish stories that seem, in hindsight, patently ridiculous.

"The paradox is that people who didn't know him -- like my wife -- would say that they thought he was making things up. I would indignantly deny that that could be true," said Chait, who is represented in the movie by a composite character named Amy Brand (played by Melanie Lynskey).

Glass, who is portrayed by "Star Wars" star Hayden Christensen, has described "Shattered Glass" as "my own personal horror film." Although he declined to be interviewed for this story "due to other commitments," Glass, 31, told the Associated Press recently that he found the movie "extremely painful and difficult to watch.

"There were large chunks of it, or at least significant chunks of it, that I looked at the ground, I didn't look at the screen. ... It was a tour through the worst parts of my life, the parts of my life I'm the most ashamed of -- things I wish I had never done, and things I feel a great deal of remorse for," said Glass, who has since graduated from Georgetown University Law School and passed the written part of the New York bar exam. Now living in New York City, he still must pass the character and fitness review to practice law in New York state.

In reviews of "Shattered Glass," critics inevitably point out that Ray, a screenwriter who was directing his first movie, never gives a rationale for Glass' fabrications.

Ray has responded in numerous interviews that the omission was deliberate because Glass didn't cooperate with the filmmakers. So Ray had no real sense of why Glass felt compelled to make up news stories, and he refused to do what Glass had done by inventing a rationale.

Ray also has said he's not really interested in why Glass lied in print. In a recent chat on The Washington Post's Web site, Ray said, "What interested me about this story was the fact that once it became clear that Glass had perpetuated some frauds on this magazine, his fellow staffers continued to rally around him and defend him.

"And yet Chuck Lane, who was struggling to fight the good fight, was meeting with resistance. In other words, what interested me was the politics of that office." Such politics transcend journalism, Ray added. "This movie is about telling the truth. You don't have to be a journalist to understand the importance of that."

Seeking self-esteem

After years of therapy, Glass now says he believes he invented stories in a desperate bid to shore up his self-esteem. "I loved the electricity of people liking my stories," he told "60 Minutes" in an August interview timed to coincide with the publication of his autobiographical novel, "The Fabulist."

"I loved going to story conference meetings and telling people what my story was going to be and seeing the room excited. I wanted every story to be a home run," said Glass, who, ironically, worked for some time as a New Republic fact checker.

Some of Glass' former colleagues aren't buying his explanation or what they see as his half-hearted apologies. Chait was one of those who recently received a letter of apology from Glass.

"I would have been prepared to accept the apology if not for the book that he wrote," Chait said. In "The Fabulist," Glass writes about a character named Stephen Glass who invents stories and says some very uncomplimentary things about thinly disguised characters representing Glass' former colleagues at The New Republic.

"For me, and I think for a lot of other people, that really changed things. That made it hard for me to forgive him and very skeptical about his apology," Chait said.

Still skeptical

Lane isn't prepared to accept Glass' newfound contrition, either.

"I will never again trust Steve's account of anything," he said. Lane contends Glass acted out of an "extraordinary sense of hostility" and "general contempt" toward his colleagues and readers.

"With a smile on his face, he was mocking and ridiculing everyone," Lane said. "By the act of doing these deceptions, he had to believe that everyone was a sucker. ... Furthermore, most of what he wrote made fun of people."

But Lane also notes that he and other New Republic editors and reporters believed Glass. And that still bothers him.

"His stories traded on stereotypes, on the world as some of us believe it is, or we'd like it to be. So there were stories on the pot-smoking young conservatives and on department-store Santas who were really child molesters.

"All of this kind of stuff fit into people's preconceptions. And it's the biggest reason we should all be ashamed."


Karen MacPherson can be reached at kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7075.

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