Stephen Glass, Earnest Reporter
There is no easy way to make a film about Stephen Glass. The story of The New Republic's one-time wunderkind who, in the summer of 1998, was discovered to have fabricated all or parts of twenty-seven stories, presents a challenge. Do you portray the world as the pathological liar saw it, endlessly exaggerated and contorted into a more beautiful and exciting place? Or do you concentrate on the sickness of the liar, a pathetic character, maladjusted and stranded in the adult world?
The recently released "Shattered Glass" is Hollywood's crack at the story of the then twenty-five-year-old writer's demise. In excruciating detail, the quick unraveling of Glass's lies is presented for us to examine anew.
For those who have chosen to forget, Glass's deceptions were exposed after a reporter from Forbes Digital Tool (an online publication, now-defunct) tried to verify the sources in an outlandish story Glass had written. The article was about a fifteen-year-old computer hacker who had broken into the system of a large software company and was being rewarded for his effort with a contract to fix the company's database. The online reporter couldn't find the hacker, the hacker's agent, the company, or even any trace of a bizarre computer hacker's convention where Glass said the deal had taken place.
When The New Republic's editor, Charles Lane, asked the young reporter to demonstrate the existence of the people and places in the piece, Glass went into a kind of liar's overdrive. He created a fake Web site and newsletter, set up fake voicemail and e-mail accounts, and even convinced his brother to pose on the phone as the CEO quoted in the story. Lane finally insisted on driving with Glass to Bethesda, where the article's events supposedly took place. Trapped at last, Glass broke down and, weeping, admitted to fabricating the story. An investigation into Glass's earlier pieces would reveal that more than half the articles he had written for the magazine were more fiction than fact.
The film answers the difficult question of point of view by handing the story to Glass to tell. To those disgusted with his misdeeds, this will have the frustrating effect of making his deception somewhat less repugnant than what real life has told us. Although Glass is not glamorized, we do live his wild fantasies with him as if they were reality -- we watch him eagerly taking notes at the imagined meeting between the adolescent, pimply hacker and the software company's CEO -- and the result is a not-so-unsympathetic portrait of a desperate and imaginative striver who fails because he tries too hard to succeed.
This is certainly how the actor portraying Glass, Hayden Christensen, who gained fame playing Anakin Skywalker in the most recent Star Wars film, sees it. In the production notes, he reveals that Glass, in his eyes, is no villain. "He's in no way a malicious, conniving person. He's none of those things," Christensen says. "Even though what he did wasn't appropriate, especially considering his line of work, he was still trying to make something of himself, for good reasons." (Compare that character assessment to one by Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic's longtime literary editor. Speaking about Glass in a recent "60 Minutes" segment, Wieseltier said, simply, "He's a worm.")
This is not to say that Glass comes off as the hero of the movie. He is seen, in fact, as a sniveling, apologetic, self-conscious baby in oversized glasses, constantly asking friends and editors, "Are you mad at me?" And there are moments when you certainly get a glimpse of his pathology -- when he, of all people, is reprimanding a rookie reporter for having "shaky facts," when you see the energy he has to expend to cover his tracks, and when he manipulates his colleagues and his former editor, the late Michael Kelly, into backing him when he is clearly lying.
But mostly, he is sanitized for the sake of the story into just a pathetic kid dangerously out of his league, wanting to be loved and accepted, eating up the smiles and attention that he gets as he pitches his fantastical tales to his colleagues. Seeing him this way, it is easier to pin the blame for his offenses not on Glass himself but on the world that nurtured and fed him.
And this world is fairly strange. The New Republic here is depicted as teeming with journalists who look no older than twenty-one. The senior editors, and especially Martin Peretz, the magazine's editor in chief, seem more like parents than anything else; in one representative scene, Peretz makes the whole staff circle every comma in an issue supposedly rife with misused punctuation. At the center of this world is Stephen Glass, who has the deep affections of everyone except Lane (played by Peter Sarsgaard), who seems to eye Glass warily even before his unmasking.
Lane's predecessor, Michael Kelly -- the film was shot before his death in Iraq last April -- is portrayed as a kind of editor saint, gently guiding and inspiring his charges. In Glass's narration, speaking to an imagined classroom of adoring high school students, he says that "there are good editors and bad editors. My hope for you is that you get the chance to have a truly great one." Kelly's greatness here is characterized as the ability to "stand up and fight for you." The cause for Kelly's eventual firing, which led to Lane's rise, is depicted in the film as largely having to do with Kelly's unflinching defense of the staff in the face of the dictatorial Peretz ("I would resign before I would let you bully them like that," he tells the editor in chief). In reality, though, it had more to do with deep political and journalistic disputes.
Lane, a paid consultant on the film, chalks up these alterations and Glass's privileged perspective in the movie version to the creative vision of the writer/director, Billy Ray. "In a situation like this, in a movie that isn't a documentary but is a dramatic portrayal, the most you can hope for is that they give it a good faith effort to represent the truth of the situation, and I think they passed the test, recognizing that this is their take on what happened," Lane says. "This is not what happened in the documentary sense, but it is a filmmaker and various actors; it's their interpretation. And as far as that goes, I think it's a reasonable interpretation."
Interestingly, Glass's own fictionalized account of his downfall, "The Fabulist," goes further than the movie in presenting a sick mind at work. In much of the book, which tells the story of "Stephen Glass," a young reporter with the same fate as the author, we hear the familiar excuses. "I wanted people to love me," Glass says again and again.
But in what might be called his more honest moments, Glass seems to realize there is no way to explain or excuse his fabrications. However fleetingly, the novelized Stephen Glass steps outside his own delusions. He writes:
Another, possibly inadvertent, truth about Glass that his own book reveals but that the movie avoids is that he doesn't even seem to like journalism very much. The film can't entertain this thought. Instead, we have the image of Glass earnestly telling a group of students that "journalism is about pursuing the truth." For the movie to give us a compelling narrative of a fall from grace, a kind of upside-down version of "All the President's Men" (the director says he viewed the classic journalism film forty-five times before shooting), we need to have a Stephen Glass who at least attempted to be an honest, committed journalist. Otherwise he would have nowhere to fall from.
The truth was, I had no defense for what I had done. And worse, I couldn't even really explain . . . how I had come to do it. I had crossed a line that some journalists . . . would never cross even in fantasy. And even those who might have crossed it in fantasy still could not understand. For them, I had gone somewhere only fantasy could go. It would be like trying to explain to someone how to suspend disbelief: either you could, or you couldn't. If you had to ask how I possibly could have fabricated, how I could have erred and how I could have dared, you'd never know -- and you'd be fortunate not to.
Throughout his own book, however, his thorough contempt for journalism shines through. In his endless lament over the harm he has caused, he hardly ever feels sorry that he has lost a profession or damaged it. Instead, he takes a condescending tone when describing the defenders of those journalism rules he has betrayed. Robert Underwood, the fictional editor standing in for Charles Lane, reprimands the fictional Stephen Glass, but with such pomposity that no one could take him seriously. Underwood tells him,
Journalism is a beautiful thing, Stephen. It's the practice of reporters figuring out what actually happened and writing it just that way. I should be able to take any story in our magazine and go out and re-report it and get the exact same results. It's like science or math that way. Every morning the press pool writes what color tie the president is wearing, red or blue, and if I were to go back a month later and call the White House's valet and ask what color the president's tie was on any day, he would tell me the very same color the pool reporter reported.
Unlike the facile version in the film, Stephen Glass himself seems clearly to imply that he was brought down not because he was a striving journalist who violated the basic tenets of a noble profession, but, rather, because he always thought they were a joke.
Gal Beckerman is an assistant editor at CJR.