Glass Houses

May 15 1998 3:30 AM

Glass Houses

Why did I--vain skeptic--fall for the too-good-to-be-true journalism of Stephen Glass?

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Colleagues describe Glass as an extraordinarily hard-working and personable 25-year-old who gladly pulled all-nighters to improve his pieces whenever his editors asked him to. He was completely open to criticism. He regularly entertained the staff at editorial meetings with previews of the dish to come in his next piece. It's a testimony to his energy that when editors questioned his hacker piece, he erected a Web site to prove the existence of a nonexistent software company. A layabout would simply have written a true story. When you like somebody, you tend to trust him. (Let this be a lesson to us all.)

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But where were the NewRepublic's fact checkers? TNR does have a fact checking department. It was established following New Republic staffer Ruth Shalit's serial plagiarisms. The person in charge of setting it up? Stephen Glass. That is ironic, of course, but the joke is not on the NewRepublic. It's on the conceit of fact checking in general.

No publication is safe from a trusted reporter who makes things up. And hindsight is easy. That said, a publication can make scamming its readers more difficult than the New Republic made it for Glass. Giving young reporters unimpeded access to anonymous quotations is like handing a toddler a loaded gun. Years ago, a young free-lancer submitted a story to me about Iran-Contra that was filled with anonymous sources. I asked for their names. "Bob Woodward doesn't tell Ben Bradlee who his sources are!" the writer objected. "Well, you're not Bob Woodward, and I'm not Ben Bradlee," I responded. As he coughed up his sources he sheared the sharper edges off his story. I never used him again.

The conventional wisdom in Washington this week is that young writers such as Glass who crack up deserve sympathy because the system pressures them into becoming stars before they are journeymen. Please. This explanation exonerates dishonest writers while providing protective cover for careless editors. If there's any moral to be taken from this story, it should be "No more excuses."

One final clue should have alerted us--readers and editors--to Glass' deception: Life is not so good that it places reporters at the center of action as frequently as it did the young Glass. And he wrote so well. Anyone can doubt a bad writer. It's the good ones who need watching.

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