The continued relevance of Stephen Glass

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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“I still can’t believe it happened,” my student said to me. “He got away with it just because people thought he was cool.”

The student, a 16-year-old girl, was talking about Stephen Glass. Every year I teach a journalism class to high school students, and every year one thing more than any other fires their passion: the story of Stephen Glass, which is depicted in the film Shattered Glass. It’s been over 10 years, so for younger readers: Stephen Glass was a hot young writer in the early 1990s at the liberal magazine The New Republic. It turned out that in most of his articles he simply made stuff up. He wrote that they had designed a “portable urinal” so that bondsmen wouldn’t have to leave the trading floor. He accused CPAC-goers of drug abuse and rape. He invented false churches, including the Church of George Herbert Walker Christ. He was a novelist posing as a journalist. And the editors ran at least 27 bogus stories he had written.

The lesson of Stephen Glass is, of course, that it is a very, very bad thing for a journalist to make things up. But have we really come so far from Glass’s time in the early 1990s? Has ideology and the Internet made it less common for journalists to make things up? I don’t think so.

When Michele Bachmann mistook the birthplace of John Wayne, the media took it an extra step, declaring that Bachmann had actually cited the location as the birthplace of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. She hadn’t; Bachmann had meant that John Wayne’s parents were from Waterloo, which is true. Nonetheless the headline that Bachmann had cited John Wayne Gacy went around the world. A writer for the Columbia Journalism Review blogged: “Making the leap from John Wayne’s misnamed hometown to a mix-up of him and Gacy seems like a vaguely dishonest means to a spicy headline (not to mention innumerable videos of a Pogo-faced Michele Bachmann on YouTube).”

But making this leap is not vaguely dishonest. It is a lie. A fabrication. The work of a fabulist. It’s a Glassism.

An even more interesting case is that of Jack Shafer, the liberal media critic for Slate. Shafer recently wrote a piece about how Rupert Murdoch kicked Glenn Beck off the air. There’s only one problem: Shafer has “no direct evidence that Murdoch killed Beck’s show.” Shafer then uses a classic Glass technique to make the claim anyway — he adds details about other people and events to cloud the water and throw the reader off of the fact that his original assertion has no basis in reality. He reports that Murdoch “scowled” when his wife Wendi made fun of Beck (was Murdoch scowling at Beck or at Wendi for making fun of Beck?). He cites the “understanding” that Roger Ailes, the head of Fox, doesn’t like Beck. He cites a Howard Kurtz story that many people at Fox were not happy with Beck.

This is a journalistic device that is right out of the Glass playbook — and Shafer knows it. In 1998, shortly after Stephen Glass was found out and fired, Shafer wrote a piece about it. He admitted that “Glass moved monumental piles of bullshit past me, a vain skeptic. I shouldn’t have believed his story about the alleged sex orgy staged by of a bunch of pot-smoking young Republicans at a D.C. convention. It’s just too good to be true.” Really? A liberal heard that conservatives had done awful things and decided to tap his shoes together three times and believe rather than question the ridiculous story? Shocking. Shafer explained how Glass got away with it:

One explanation is that factoids such as the bondsman’s portable urinal, which seem starkly implausible when presented alone, are less so when woven in with easier-to-believe fictions. Glass skillfully eases you in by “reporting” that assistants serve bond dealers lunch at their desks and do their Christmas shopping for them. Like the famous frog, you would jump out if dropped in boiling water but cook to death in water that heated up gradually.

Kind of like believing that Rupert Murdoch canned Glenn Beck because the assertion is surrounded by “facts” about what other people think about Glenn Beck. It’s also worth noting that a couple years after admitting he was bamboozled by Glass, Shafer got taken in again. In the infamous “monkeyfishing” episode, he edited and published a piece in Slate about humans “monkeyfishing” in the Florida Keys — a piece that everyone in the world except for Shafer and his then-boss Michael Kinsley instantly knew smelt bad. They stood by the story for six years until the author himself, Jay Forman, admitted it was all a fabrication. (I would also advise Shafer to stop referring to Murdoch as a “genocidal tyrant” — it’s a joke that ran its course several years ago.)

The truth is that many journalists today are not much different from Stephen Glass. They distort, pile on facts and anecdotes to support a questionable thesis, suppress and ignore facts and people they disagree with, and often out and out lie. I tell my students that one of the most important things they need to have is a sense of honor. Because, as several of the guest speakers I had this year told them, as a journalist you have the ability to destroy someone. So go deeper. Talk to your subject face to face. See their humanity. And remember the awful things you are capable of all in the name of being cool.

Dave Weigel, another Slate writer, admitted as much when he was caught a few years ago on the infamous Journolist saying nasty things about the conservatives he was supposedly objectively covering. As journalist Moe Tkacik wrote in The Washington City Paper, “two days after Weigel resigned he wrote a mea culpa of sorts explaining that he had been ‘dazzled’ by his admittance into the exclusive Journolist, and that he wrote his more insulting screeds against conservatives in a shameless bid to get liberals to like and accept them by telling them what they wanted to hear.” It is not a far step from this to the scenes in Shattered Glass where Stephen Glass is dazzling the liberal editors of The New Republic with his latest bullshit about crazy right-wingers. Of course, sometimes Weigel just makes an innocent error, like the rest of us. Like this one, which is way down on Slate’s corrections page today:

In a June 28 “Weigel” blog post, David Weigel originally stated, incorrectly, that 70 percent of black voters opposed California’s Proposition 8. That’s the number of black voters who supported the proposition, which banned gay marriage in the state.

Yeah, sometimes it’s just a mistake.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.