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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According to the Business Times of Singapore, there's a bond dealer at the New York firm of RBL who keeps a hand-held urinal at his desk so he never misses a market turn. And according to both the Independent and the Sunday Times of London, the booming Monica Lewinsky novelty market includes 3,000 items, such as "Monicondoms" (designed for oral sex), talking Lewinsky dolls, and Monica birthday cards ("I'll blow out your candle!").

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Great stories, both false--cribbed from articles by Stephen Glass in the NewRepublic. Glass was fired last week by TNR after a Forbes reporter alerted TNR editor Charles Lane that an article about a teen-age computer hacker ("Hack Heaven," May 18) was full of fabrications, and Lane's own investigation confirmed that Glass had made things up wholesale in many NewRepublic pieces. (The details are in Forbes Digital Tool.)

Checking the Web and Lexis-Nexis for the people and organizations mentioned in Glass' articles, you do not come up empty-handed. Although there are often no references before Glass published his fantasies, there are often references afterward. These are generally in British publications--or publications in places to which Britain brought the benefits of advanced civilization, such as hack journalism.

Between the Web, Nexis, and the good old telephone, it took little effort to discredit such apparent Glass inventions as the National Memorabilia Convention, Monicondoms, or the investment firm RBL. Other untraceable organizations, publications, and individuals include Patriotic Profits, P.J. Hozell, Isaac Tyo, Climate Lookout, Truth in Science, the Association for the Advancement of Sound Water Policy, Jim Sackman, Back to Eden, Naked Truth, Ryan Hogin, Andrew Zubitsky, the "Newt-O-Meter," the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ, the Committee for the Former President's Integrity, Steve Tellis, the Tellis Times, and the Commission to Restore the Presidency to Greatness.

Listed here, it all seems transparently bogus or at least deeply suspicious. Yet I'm embarrassed to confess that every Glass story passed my stink test when first published in the New Republic. Now, plowing through the big Nexis dump, my hindsight is golden. 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. And why weren't my suspicions aroused after three New Republic pieces discovering bizarre cults centered on implausible political figures? First, he documented the adoration of Paul Tsongas by "Susan," an 80-year-old Chicago widow with no last name. Then he discovered the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ. Finally, he stumbled upon an Alan Greenspan Shrine at an investment firm.

I can't say why the New Republic failed to catch Glass before Forbes did. Editor Lane declined to answer my questions. (The magazine's New York PR officer called with the magazine's regrets.) Glass could not be reached for comment. But I can speculate about my own failure to see what seems so clear in hindsight.

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.

Another partial explanation is that Glass built up credibility as each story was published and went unchallenged. You figured that if RBL didn't have a bond dealer with a urinal on his desk, someone from RBL would call the writer's bluff. What you didn't figure is that Glass would make up RBL itself. The principals in his stories didn't complain about the falsehoods for the simple reason that they often didn't exist.

Illustration by Peter Kuper

But the main reason Glass spoofed everybody's radar is that his stories were, in the self-mocking journalists' phrase "too good to check." As a reader, not his editor, it was not my job to check them. But I didn't even bring my usual editor's skepticism to reading them, because I wanted them to be true.

The Glassworks contain what editors crave--stories with energy and imagination and originality. The filigree of detail dazzles. Some of his better pieces read like textbook examples of New Journalism, fusing the world of fact with the literary power of narrative. He doesn't just write about teen-age hackers, he tracks a pimply member of the species down to his Bethesda home where a software company is signing him to a contract. He interviews the adoring mom. No wonder George, the New York TimesMagazine, Rolling Stone, and Harper's failed to snoot out the stink factor and assigned pieces to him. (Slate published a piece co-authored by Glass last year. See "Readme" for the editor's comment.)

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.)

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.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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