There isn’t much interesting to say about Steven Glass that hasn’t already been said.
Every article–and there have been many this year since the publication of his roman à clef, The Fabulist, and the release of unauthorized biopic Shattered Glass–mentions the 27 of 41 stories he fabricated as a reporter at The New Republic, the faked piece about a teenage hacker that occasioned his downfall in 1998, and his subsequent retreat from the media spotlight to his parents’ home in the tony Highland Park suburb of Chicago.
I knew Steve during a different and, no doubt, happier time in his life. While we never became friends, I have fond memories of him, in part because of the happy memories I have of my time at The Daily Pennsylvanian, the independent student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania where we were both reporters and then editors.
It was an exciting place to be–far more interesting than any single class I took at Penn. While the paper focused on campus affairs, we often joked that it was the third largest daily newspaper in Philadelphia. That the paper occasionally broke stories missed by the city’s Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News was a testament to the quality of the student reporters who worked there.
Since Penn, like most self-respecting universities, lacks an undergraduate journalism degree, the DP was the proper training ground for future professional hacks. It wasn’t uncommon for staff members–all of them full-time students–to spend 50 hours a week at the paper. Steve stayed the longest and worked the hardest.
As its top editor, Steve Glass helped shape a culture that emphasized rigor and responsibility in reporting, an odd fact given his own failings. In the early 1990s, the paper produced an impressive number of people who have since gone on to write for leading publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Jerusalem Post, Roll Call, and Financial Times.
Steve managed the large and small crises of a daily student newspaper with aplomb.
The spring of 1993 was a particularly trying time for Penn and the paper. Three stories–two with racial overtones and another involving the appointment by Clinton of then-president Sheldon Hackney to the National Endowment for the Humanities–dominated the paper’s front page that semester.
In the late spring, angered by a conservative columnist’s criticisms of affirmative action and alleged preferential treatment of black fraternities at Penn, students claiming to represent the “black community” stole the entire press run of a day’s issue in protest. For a few weeks, the national media focused on Penn and the incident as an example of political correctness run amok. (The other incident, dubbed the “Water Buffalo” affair, that captured even more national attention, is recounted by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate in their book, The Shadow University (Free Press, 1998).)
When Hackney refused to guarantee the safety of the paper’s staff–tensions were high enough that many worried about the potential for a violent sit-in at the paper’s offices–Steve hired private security. He then took Hackney to task for his failure to condemn the theft of the papers.
I prefer to remember that Steve Glass–a thoughtful, kind, and charming college student who was a vocal defender of free speech and the newspaper we all loved when they needed defending on Penn’s campus.
Director Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass, however, tells the more familiar story: Steve Glass as a 25-year-old hotshot reporter at The New Republic and liar.
Steve started his career in Washington with the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review. Not long after, he was hired by Andrew Sullivan as his personal assistant at TNR and later promoted to fact-checker and then reporter.
But Steve did most of his writing at The New Republic for editors Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria, in the movie), who tragically died while covering the Iraq war this past spring, and Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), now a reporter with The Washington Post.
His knack for always producing the telling detail or the perfect quote made him the hottest young reporter in Washington. By the time he was exposed as a fraud, Steve was reportedly making $150,000 a year, mostly from the freelance gigs he picked up with Rolling Stone, George, and other outlets.
The movie focuses on Steve’s days at TNR. Ably portrayed by Hayden Christensen, Steve’s kindness and eagerness to please are centerpieces of the story portending his fall.
Whenever challenged or being mildly rebuked, Christensen as Glass asks in a plaintive voice, “Are you mad at me?” I recall the real Steve asking the same question frequently. Other small character traits make their way onto the screen: Steve would often walk around the office without shoes. He was particularly adept at befriending women in an entirely innocent and charmingly geeky way. He’d often remember small details about people’s tastes or interests.
During a scene in the movie showing a party at his house, Steve has thoughtfully laid out beer in two ice buckets for his guests–one for beer brands beginning with the letters A through L, the other for beers M through Z.
Owing to its compressed format, the movie’s depiction of his character ticks–which came off as charming quirks–makes Steve seem slightly creepy.
But Billy Ray has done a fine job in adapting Buzz Bissinger’s original Vanity Fair article into a drama that, while not always gripping, is entertaining enough. Journalism does not usually make for a compelling feature film, so Ray ought to be congratulated for accomplishing that much.
Ray, moreover, doesn’t fall into the trap of excusing Steve by painting him as an emotionally troubled, but harmless kid. Instead, Steve’s increasingly desperate attempts to avoid responsibility force the audience to confront the fact that this basically likeable guy has been lying all along.
Therein lies one of the shortcomings of the film. Ray has placed the responsibility for the fakery so squarely on Steve’s shoulders that The New Republic–which capitalized on the movie’s release with an October cover story on the scandal and journalistic ethics–emerges unscathed.
A particularly trite scene at the end of the movie explicitly excuses the magazine for having published so many lies, chalking it all up to a cunning rogue reporter.
In fact, Steve published lies for so long because, aside from being a charming guy, he was able to trade on TNR‘s liberal prejudices in ways that should make anyone at that magazine still cringe.
His story, for instance, about young conservatives’ debauchery played into a liberal presumption that conservatives are at the very least moral hypocrites, if not outright perverts. Other pieces told TNR editors and readers what they wanted to hear about Clinton-haters–that they were insane–or Wall Street traders–that they were money-grubbing weirdos.
Thus, the movie misses the chance to explore The New Republic‘s failings as a magazine and, thereby, say something interesting about the liberal media.
I’m not one to harp on media bias, but something could have been said here about a bigoted view of large swathes of American culture that leads otherwise intelligent editors to credulously accept obviously absurd stories about life in the country’s hinterlands. (It’s not as if no one noticed that Steve was making things up long before he was outed. Complaints and letters apparently were ignored or dismissed by editors at TNR without much circumspection.)
Still, the movie overall is a thoughtful and, to my mind, fairly accurate story about Steve’s personal downfall and, in that respect, a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half.
Damon Chetson received his MA in history from the University of Virginia and currently directs an academic program at the Institute for Humane Studies.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire