Fool Us Once, Fool Us Twice
Wisely, the makers of Shattered Glass have not pitched their film to viewers -- or the media -- as being about either the inner workings of a hundred-plus-year-old publication or the pitfalls of modern political journalism.
No, according to its writer-director, Billy Ray, this newest take on serial mythmaker Stephen Glass is "bigger than journalism" -- it's about "right and wrong." Reviewers and critics have, in general, bought into this point of view, agreeing that Shattered Glass is, if not bigger than journalism, still about journalism's big issues: It "puts journalistic ethics on trial," according to blurb-whore multiple offender Peter Travers. Rex Reed raves it "will teach you something about ethics gone awry." The Washington Times describes it as a "vivid morality play." David Edelstein, writing in Slate, gets rather scarily into the spirit of such moralizing, writing that the film "makes us feel the way our forefathers must have felt after a really good public stoning."
This is all quite a windup for a movie in which the central moral quandary isn't much of a head-scratcher: Is it wrong for a journalist to make up stories? Well, yes.
To be fair, critics would have to do some fabricating themselves to find a true ethical dilemma in the story of Glass as told by Ray. While superficially compelling, the Shattered Glass version of events that brought down a rising young magazine writer and threatened a venerated magazine feels less like a meditation on right and wrong than a police procedural.
In May 1998, Glass was fired from the perennially almost-relevant New Republic after a writer for Forbes' online publication, Digital Tool, unraveled the first of what would prove to be a string -- nay, a skein -- of almost totally invented feature articles.
Shattered Glass tells that story and nothing else.
Much has been made of Ray's decision to keep Glass -- in a manner of speaking -- opaque: We don't find out much about his motives, hear little about his past, and learn only the barest outline of the mechanics of his fraud. On this score, the movie fails even as a genre flick: The best part of any film about a con is finding out how it's done.
More importantly, though, the film fails to show why Glass' deceptions matter. If the "dilemma" set forth by Ray is to lie or not to lie, the stakes of the choice are absurdly, insultingly low -- by the moral calculus of the film, Glass is wrong to lie because he made The New Republic look bad.
In reality, those most profoundly betrayed by Glass' falsehoods were New Republic readers. But the closest the movie gets to suggesting that journalism is a public service and not a personality contest is a line that's really meant to underscore how important the magazine itself is: "What you write gets read by people who matter." Couple this with the movie's repeated assertion that the publication was "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One," and viewers might begin to infer that the journalistic line Glass crossed is worth holding not just because he hurt the feelings of those he worked with but because, you know, "people who matter" might make decisions based on what they read.
It's true: If journalists are no more trustworthy than the CIA, we're all in trouble. But it's also worth noting that Glass didn't write about anything as important as ethanol subsidies. In fact, throughout the movie, characters throw around the phrase "a piece on ethanol subsidies" as shorthand for the kind of dry, wonky inside-the-Beltway journalism that Glass didn't practice. Rather, Glass had a feel for what would make a fine zeitgeisty, counter-counter-intuitive snapshot of the country's mood -- or, rather, the moderate-liberal intellectual New Republic reader's mood.
The New Republic still runs pieces that pander to its readers, confirming their personal fears and prejudices. My personal favorite was a 2001 cover story titled "In Defense of Conventional Wisdom." The magazine is not alone -- the proliferation of highly targeted niche media, especially in the Internet era, has created passive media consumers more interested in personal affirmation than truth.
Which brings us to the question I kept hoping Shattered Glass would ask: Not just "Why did he lie?" but "Why did anyone believe him?"
In hindsight, almost all of Glass' stories have the "if it ain't true it oughta be" ring of urban legends: Wall Streeters who literally worshipped Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, drunk young Republicans, and, of course, the story that brought him down, hackers employed by major electronics companies to use their powers for good, not evil.
Glass' stories made it into the pages of The New Republic because the magazine's staff and its readers wanted to believe they were true. This willingness to believe is not, by any means, as great a sin as the many transgressions Glass committed, but it's a sin nonetheless. If, as David Edelstein put it, Shattered Glass makes those Glass betrayed "feel the way our forefathers must have felt after a really good public stoning," I would hope what he means is "guilty."
Lost faith in the media? This should help: Voting for AlterNet's Second Annual Alternative Movie Awards, the Alties, will be certified by the Center for Voting Democracy.