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Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.


Even Dan Rather Would Blush  | e-mail post

With all the brouhaha continuing (although seemingly dying down) surrounding the whole Dan Rather affair, some readers might enjoy a look at a writer that went far beyond playing fast and loose with the facts and became a veritable Joe Isuzu of the liberal media establishment. Stephen Glass wrote for the New Republic in the late 90's until he was fired after Forbes Digital's Adam Penenberg actually vetted one of Glass's stories, on computer hackers.

"Shattered Glass" is the film reenactment of the rise and fall of Stephen Glass, and the film is outstanding. Hayden Christensen is almost more annoying than he is in the recent Star Wars franchises, but in this case his character is supposed to be pathetic and snivelling, which appears to be Christensen's stock in trade, so it works. Peter Sarsgaard turns in an outstanding performance as Chuck Lane, and the numerous award nominations and wins he garnered from the role were very well-deserved. And, unlike about half of Glass' oeuvre, the story is both incredible and true.

The film is wonderful because it helps to call into question how Glass got away with it. He did it both under Chuck Lane, who ultimately fired him, as well as under the late Mike Kelly, his first editor at the New Republic who died last year covering the Iraq. The fundamental flaw is the use of reporters notes as fact-checking resources. Glass didn't write policy analysis pieces that are easy to verify by checking the Congressional Record or calling the GAO. Instead, he wrote human interest stories about 15 year-old hackers extorting money from non-existent software companies or young Republicans getting high and hiring hookers; stories for which the only meaningful source was the reporter himself. The surprising thing to me is that I am certain both of these fabricated stories are likely to be mirrored by actual events, but would require some actual reporting to discover. Stephen Glass qua Walter Mitty found it easier to go inside his head to create these stories than to hit the road actually digging them up.

Many have wondered how he got away with it; Jack Shafer at Slate writes a nice essay on the question, and there are many others who pondered it as well.

Glass when on to spend 5 years in therapy trying to understand why he became a pathological liar. I must admit, I would love to read those notes, but you can get a sense of the high-level reasons from the "60 Minutes" interview with Glass (not by Dan Rather) included as an extra on the DVD.

Proving that he still doesn't quite seem to have a handle on the fact/fiction divide, Glass last year published The Fabulist, a fictional account of a young journalist named Stephen Glass who is ultimately fired for fabricating stories. Apparently Glass is too far gone to even write a straight-up autobiography. Or maybe as the film suggests, he is far happier in his little fantasy world, and writing the honest account of the real Stephen Glass would be far too painful an exercise in self-reflection for him.

Oh, and just because this happened at The New Republic certainly doesn't mean that I'm beating on the "liberal media" for factual errors. I'd rather have Glass in print than Bill O'Reilly on the airwaves, at least Glass was intentionally entertaining, not simply a parody of himself. Although, even the NY Times this week is giving a tip of the hat to Bill O'Reilly.

Oh, and this just in, apparently CBS is confessing that they were "misled" and Dan Rather made a "mistake in judgement." I love how they decided to use very passive terms to describe the problem. CBS didn't neglect its journalistic duties, they were mislaid; Dan Rather didn't play fast and loose with the facts, he made a mistake. Let's see if they have a real confession at some point. So far, though, they haven't thrown Rather under the bus.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  |  | Monday, September 20, 2004
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