Shattered Glass (2003) Artemus Ward Dept. of Political Science Northern Illinois University
Making the Film Director Billy Ray said he “checked with two separate sources” to confirm that an event had occurred before including it in the movie. Ray and his cinematographer viewed All the President’s Men “dozens of times, to see how a story about journalism could be told in a visually compelling way.” Ray depicts the shift from fantasy to reality in two ways: 1) framing the reality scenes from TNR with fantasy scenes of Glass triumphantly returning to his old high school to speak to a journalism class and 2) shooting the early scenes inside the magazine offices with a handheld camera and the later scenes with a steadier tripod–mounted camera. Ray said about the latter: “the suggestion being that truth as an idea was beginning to take hold there, and that order was beginning to be restored.” Dissatisfied with a preliminary cut of the film that portrayed Chuck Lane and the rest of TNR staff as being glumly resigned over the Glass affair, Ray wrote and shot new scenes for the final version that opened in theaters in fall 2003. Both Michael Kelly and Chuck Lane served as paid consultants and were given approval over the script.
Before Glass: Washington Post, Boston Globe, USA Today Glass was hardly the first reporter to make up stories. Janet Cooke had done it in 1980 in a Pulitzer Prize–winning piece for The Washington Post about an eight-year-old crack addict who she invented. Nik Cohn, 21 years after the fact, blithely admitted to having made up most of the New York story that inspired the film Saturday Night Fever. Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith won the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1997. However, the Globe returned the ASNE award and withdrew her from consideration for a Pulitzer Prize after the newspaper acknowledged that some of her columns contained fabricated people, events, and quotes. Smith admitted to four instances of fabrications in her columns and was asked to resign from the Globe after this revelation. Jack Kelley was a longtime USA Today reporter and nominee and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. In 2004 it came out that he had long been fabricating stories, going so far as to write up scripts so associates could pretend to be sources during an investigation of his actions by others at the newspaper. The newspaper conducted an extensive review of Kelley's stories, sending investigators to Cuba, Israel, and Serbia to check his work and sift through stacks of hotel records to determine if Kelley was where he claimed to be when filing stories. Kelley resigned but denied the charges. USA Today publisher, Craig Moon, issued a public apology on the front page of the newspaper and the scandal led to the resignations of the Editor-in-Chief and the News section managing editor.
Before Glass: The New York Times Jayson Blair interned at the New York Times in 1998 and quickly rose to prominence through the sheer volume of stories he produced on major issues. Blair’s reporting was often sloppy but his output was unmatched. On April 28, 2003, Blair received a call from Times national editor Jim Roberts, asking him about similarities between a story he had written two days earlier and one written by San Antonio Express-News reporter Macarena Hernandez on April 18. Hernandez had a summer internship at The Times years earlier, and had worked alongside Blair. She contacted The Times after details and quotes in Blair's story appeared exactly the same as in hers. Blair's plagiarism of Hernandez’s article was so flagrant that it led to further pressing by Times editors, who asked him to prove that he had, in fact, traveled to Texas and interviewed the woman in his article. After being unable to provide proof, Blair resigned from The Times on May 2, 2003. Following the resignation, a full investigation of all of Blair’s articles began. An internal report was commissioned by Times editors, with a committee consisting of 25 staffers and three outside journalists, led by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal. The Siegal committee discovered that 36 of the 73 national news stories Blair had written since October 2002 were suspect, ranging from fabrications to copying stories from other sources. The Times reported on Blair's journalistic misdeeds in an unprecedented 7,239-word front-page story that ran on May 11, 2003, headlined "Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception." The story called the Blair scandal "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.“ Both the Executive and Managing Editors resigned one month after Blair.
Editors v. Reporters What should the editor-reporter relationship be? Consider that Michael Kelly, Chuck Lane’s predecessor at The New Republic, never wavered in his support for Glass who he had helped catapult into the big leagues. When confronted with two different accusations of fabrication in Glass’s work during a three-month period in 1997, Kelly responded not with a soul-searching interrogation of his protégé but, in one of the incidents, by dashing off angry and vitriolic letters to the offended parties. Kelly called one of them dishonest and labeled his complaint meritless, and told another that he owed Glass an apology. “You either trust the writer or you don’t,” said Kelly, calling the complaints “nitpicks.” Kelly went beyond an editor’s ordinary defense of a writer. When pointed criticism of an article came from the subject himself, Kelly fired off a private letter that the subject later described as one of the nastiest he had ever received. “Mr. Jacobson, you lied, and you lied because lying supported your thesis, and you attempted to cover up your lie,” Kelly wrote. “You have shown that you are willing to smear someone’s professional reputation without any concern for truth … I await your apology to Stephen Glass and to this magazine.” An editor at another publication also wrote Kelly questioning the same article: “The whole article,” he claimed, “is so dishonest in approach that one can’t help but suspect that Glass knew he was fudging.” Kelly privately replied: “I regard your assessment of Mr. Glass’s work as meritless: dishonest, wrong-headed and clearly motivated by devotion to ideology, rather than by any concern for truth or accuracy.… I take criticism of TNR seriously, when it comes from a credible source. That doesn’t include you. If you want to make it your occupation to do hackwork and hatchet jobs on behalf of the left’s party line, that’s up to you, but don’t expect me to accept you as the arbitrer [sic] of what constitutes shoddy.” In contrast to Kelly, Lane was less popular with TNR staff but he supported Glass to the point of contributing titles to two of Glass’s controversial stories “Monica Sells” about sex novelties themed around the Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair and “Hack Heaven” about the teenage computer hacker’s blackmail demands of a sportscar and a lifetime subscription to Playboy. Yet Lane demonstrates the heroic editor who once he uncovers evidence of his reporter’s transgressions, acts immediately and decisively, defending his honorable profession. Is this the message viewers got from the film?
Setting the Record Straight The New Republic, after an investigation involving a substantial portion of its editorial staff, would ultimately acknowledge fabrications in 27 of the 41 bylined pieces that Glass had written for the magazine in the two-and-a-half-year period between December 1995 and May 1998. In a note to its readers following Glass’s firing, TNR said it had been victimized by “the systematic and intentional deceptions of someone who actually has no business practicing journalism,” adding that it had “promptly removed the culprit” and “publicly acknowledged the problem.” Glass’s former coworkers later said he was “a very confused soul” who lacked “any capacity for grappling with moral questions” and who failed “to get that truth is essential to journalism, or that journalism done the honest way serves a critical role in society.” In Manhattan, John F. Kennedy Jr., editor of George, would write a personal letter to Clinton White House official Vernon Jordan apologizing for Glass’s conjuring up two sources who had made juicy and emphatic remarks about the sexual proclivities of the presidential adviser and his boss. At Harper’s, Glass would be dismissed from his contract after a story he had written about phone psychics, which contained 13 first-name sources, could not be verified.
Journalist as Villain In contrast to hero journalist portrayals in earlier films such as All the President’s Men (1976), more recent journalism movies depict villain journalists as often times more loathsome than lawyers, politicians, or business moguls who are the traditional bad guys in films about the white-collar world. Shattered Glass shows how journalism’s current failings have diminished its public credibility. Sensationalism and profits-above-all philosophy spread through news organizations, weakening their standards and enfeebling their public spirit.
Who Reports? Shattered Glass is a psychological study of the dangerous atmosphere within the journalistic community, who tend to hire fresh, young, and largely untested talent to their staffs and employ minimal effort in fact-checking before unleashing the articles to the world. All it takes is one crafty pathological liar to smear the credibility of a renowned publication, and the end result makes us question whether the information we get is accurate, or merely the musings of an over-active mind seeking to entertain and make a name for himself through sensationalism. Consider that is was not simply Glass but larger social and cultural forces that may have given rise to the scandal: The movie alludes briefly to the financial pressures on TNR. The publisher says: “Our losses are a joke.” The median age of the staff was only 26 and Glass was the youngest of all. The young TNR staff wants to make names for themselves and some were envious of Glass’s growing fame. There is a difference between Glass’s splashy, personalized style of reporting and the drier, policy-oriented style favored by Lane. There is a competitiveness among the online reporters at Forbes to get a piece of the story exposing Glass. Should journalism be entrusted to relatively young, inexperienced, non-credentialed people?
The Public and the Press Public opinion polls show that the public regards the press with a mixture of fear and expectation. 84% said government should require balanced reporting. 70% said government should impose fines for media bias or inaccuracy. 50% thought journalists should be licensed. At the same time, 75% said it was “very important” for the press to “hold public officials accountable,” and 66% said the press was responsible for “protecting the public from abuses of power.”
New Journalism Should there be a distinction between fiction and non-fiction? Should journalism be exclusively non-fiction? In the 1960s and 70s, a new style of writing emerged as a blend of journalism and literary techniques. So called “new journalism” was found in the writing of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and others and was typically found in magazines and books rather than newspapers. Rather than emphasize the objective who, what, when, where, why, and how of straight journalism, the new journalists focused on setting the scene and often placed themselves in the action as is often the case in fiction writing. Did Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” actually happen? Readers are meant to think it did and while the “who, what, when…” should be about the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas, the story is instead about Thompson trying to cover it – or at least what he does while trying to cover it… “In some circles the Mint 400 is a far, far better thing... than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby... and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one. This race attracts a very special breed. It was time to get grounded, to ponder this rotten assignment... and figure out how to cope with it. It was time to do the job. Those of us who had been up all night were in no mood for coffee and doughnuts. We wanted strong drink. We were, after all… the absolute creamof the national sporting press. We were gathered in Las Vegas for this very special moment in sport….”
Truthiness Glass can be thought of as the perfect expression of his time and place: an era is cresting in Washington; it is a time when fact and fiction are blurred not only by writers eager to score but also by presidents and their attorneys, spinmeisters and special prosecutors. “Truthiness” – a term invented by satirist Stephen Colbert -- is a "truth" that a person claims to know intuitively "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Colbert once said: “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.” From one perspective, Stephen Glass was a master parodist of his city’s shifting truths, deliberately pushing the boundaries of the already blurred lines of fact and fiction from the new journalism to DC spin. From another, he was an insecure, self-serving fraud who undermined the tenants of responsible journalism.
Is Journalism a Profession? Some question whether journalism is a profession. The constant imperative in many newsrooms to grind out copy on deadline and amass profits for the parent company conflicts with notions of professional autonomy and public service. The Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics first principle is to “Seek Truth and Report It.” The Code also says: “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” It further states: “Never plagiarize.” Still, there are no universally applied standards or means of disbarment. The specialized education and license that one must obtain to practice law or medicine are not required in journalism. Anyone can do it, regardless of training or scruples. Should this be changed?
The Highland Park Effect? Highland Park has the feel of a gated community without the actual gates. Nestled in a cluster of affluent North Shore Chicago suburbs, it has a population of approximately 31,000. There are three houses on one particular cul-de-sac, curved in the shape of a clamshell, where Stephen Glass lived before he went to college. One is a faux château, but the Glasses’ house is of drab brown brick and has a pool out back. There is no sidewalk, and on a weekday in June the only sound comes from a lawn mower. Two qualities particularly distinguish Highland Park, and both made an impression on Stephen Glass. The first is its theatrical tradition. Highland Park is a town of boys with very clever minds who left to strike gold in Hollywood. The creators of the Revenge of the Nerds movies grew up here. So did the director of Beethoven and The Flintstones. And so did Paul Brickman, the writer and director of Risky Business, which captured one of Highland Park’s key characteristics, namely the way many parents here push their kids to succeed, which leads to the second quality; Harvard educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot spent a good deal of time at Highland Park High School researching her 1983 book, The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture. She was impressed with the school’s stunning academic programs but noted that values such as character and morality were sometimes little more than brushstrokes against the relentlessness of achievement. Highland Park parents, she found, expected children to be reading before kindergarten and were critical of teachers who stressed social-psychological development. Parents lived vicariously through their children and saw Ivy League admissions as emblems of their own success. It was a place, Lawrence-Lightfoot noted, where an average kid was seen as slow.
Stephen Glass: Fraud or Genius? In 1990, as a high-school senior in Highland Park, Stephen Glass—a theater-lover—had served as a technical director of Stunts, a group of talented students who produced their own work. (One production involved a Washington journalist caught up in a web of conspiracy and corruption.) The yearbook pictured Glass, directing the movements of the cast through a headset. “Stephen Glass,” read the caption, “peruses the script, ready to call the scenes, sets, and props.” During his last year in high school, Glass also participated in an activity designed to encourage rapid and inventive thinking called Adventures of the Mind. At Highland Park High—a rigorous, competitive school where it wasn’t unusual for 5 percent of the senior class to be National Merit semifinalists—Adventures of the Mind drew the “mental giants” who loved the game of designing scenarios with creative flair. They were asked to prepare a musical in 15 minutes. Or come up, rapid-fire, with clever commercial slogans. Or act out raising a chair off the ground to see if it would float. It was the perfect fodder for smart kids. “You start with an idea,” said Glass in the yearbook, “expand on that idea until it’s a reality. It makes you more aware of not only your own capabilities, but also exposes you to the different types of careers that are waiting for us after we graduate.” Trying to measure up to his demanding parents and more accomplished older brother Glass studied pre-med at Penn but did poorly and switched to Anthropology. He wrote for the school newspaper and landed an internship at The New Republic. Would the film have had a different impact had Glass’s past been portrayed? At his apex, Glass, had articles not only at The New Republic but also at Harper’s, George, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. He had so many different writing contracts that his 1998 income might well have reached $150,000 (including his $45,000 New Republic salary). His stories had attracted the attention not just of Random House—his agent was trying to score a book deal—but of several screenwriters. After being fired from The New Republic, he graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown Law and passed the New York State bar exam. He briefly returned to journalism writing a 2003 article in Rolling Stone, penned The Fabulist -- an account of his New Republic days – and in 2007 was said to be employed in a Los Angeles law firm as a paralegal and performing with a comedy group.
Possible Reforms • As it is now structured, journalism is a libertarian exercise where individuals are engaged in a capitalist enterprise. Hence critics suggest that the current system is not set up to create good journalism but to instead generate maximum profits for corporations. • Should there be public policy measures and subsidies to encourage a vibrant nonprofit and noncommercial media sector? • Should ethical guidelines be strengthened: • regarding how and when to attribute quotes or other information, • promote a more team-oriented newsroom in which staffers are not made to feel as though they are competing for money and exposure, • and a more stringent editorial oversight for everyone, including established “stars” who might otherwise get a free pass.
Conclusion The film was an attempt to be consistent with journalism ethics codes and the social responsibility model of the press: one news organization, through the initiative of its staff, had exposed the misdeeds of a competing news organization, and the editor at the competing organization had accepted responsibility by firing the wrongdoer and issuing a public apology. However, Shattered Glass depicts the well-kept secret in reporting: The culture of journalism professes loyalty to truth, thoroughness, context and sobriety but actually rewards prominence, the unique take, standing out from the crowd and the riveting narrative. Should journalism give up on truth and embrace truthiness or even fiction? Shattered Glass argues that we should not give up on truth.
Sources Bissinger, Buzz, “Shattered Glass,” Vanity Fair, September 1998. http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/archive/1998/09/bissinger199809 Ehrlich, Matthew C., Journalism in the Movies (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004). Ehrlich, Matthew C., “Fabrication in Journalism: Shattered Glass,” in Howard Good, ed. Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) 19-33. Harper, Jennifer, “Poll Finds Reporters Obnoxious,” Washington Times, December 18, 1996, A4.