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A former New Republic fact checker remembers the wake of Stephen Glass.- October 31, 2003
I've never met Steve Glass, but I know his ghost well. I was the guy who replaced the guy who replaced Glass as the head fact checker at The New Republic, after Glass was caught fabricating large parts of 27 of the 41 articles he wrote for the magazine. By the time I got to TNR, editors treated the sanctity of facts in something of the same way that John Ashcroft handles national security. We wielded the trademark pink highlighter pen with a vigor born out of betrayal, and, aside from the occasional grumble from a writer I happened to press a bit roughly, the magazine seemed to take real pride in a ruthless commitment to verification.
This commitment was not merely a way to restore the magazine's integrity, or to avoid lawsuits. It was also very clearly a way to exorcise Glass's ghost. Rigorous fact-checking became a ceremony of expiation. And what exactly was the nature of Glass's ghost? After viewing Shattered Glass, film treatment of the Glass saga, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, I think it's clear it has much to do with the awkward place of narcissism in the pressroom.
From the few people I've spoken to who knew Glass, the movie did seem to capture his spooky combination of ambition and self-doubt, which played itself out in a relentless need to be loved. (This is not to say the movie was without its lapses in verisimilitude, most notably the avuncular, Santa Claus-like portrayal of Marty Peretz, the magazine's owner, and the way-too hygienic office décor.) The blurring of these two qualities in Glass, played by Hayden Christensen of Anakin Skywalker fame, is one of the movie's obvious themes. It opens with Glass, seen walking in some beatific trance in a convention full of (imagined, it later turned out) anti-Clinton memorabilia, announcing the professional advantages of meekness: "If you're a little bit humble, a little self-effacing or solicitous, you stand out."
It's clear in the movie that for Glass, journalism was simply an instrument of his narcissism—or, perhaps more charitably, of his need for public approbation. Why then was he so popular among the staff, especially among those who seemed to be writing in the service of something a bit, well, nobler, and who got less attention for it? One obvious reason was that he was almost obsessively solicitous, bringing people coffee, dropping gratuitous compliments, encouraging younger writers. And maybe he really was simply that charming. But it also could be that Glass provided a useful service for his co-workers. He was the amicable id of every political opinion journalist. He surrendered, unabashedly, to the temptations that most of his peers had successfully resisted. Participating in Steve's rise allowed them a sort of vicarious guilty pleasure.
But the others' pleasure was only vicarious, and this is a point that needs stressing, for it's one that the movie really botches. To put it bluntly, New Republic writers are not nearly as self-important as they appear in Shattered Glass. During the movie, TNR is referred to several times as "the inflight magazine of Air Force One." The line made me, and the several other TNR alumni with whom I saw Shattered Glass, cringe. (It's worth noting that the phrase was used in an advertising campaign, but it never would have crossed a staffer's lips.) TNR writers often recognize that they are scribbling into the whirlwind, and, these days, most would take a satisfaction in not being the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. (As TNR associate editor Ryan Lizza told The New York Times recently, that magazine is probably Sports Illustrated.) But it's precisely what Slate's David Plotz called the "ironic, self-mocking culture of the magazine" that tempers the self-importance that you'd expect to find among a bunch of 20-somethings paid to give their opinions on politics. By beefing up the public prestige and the internal self regard of the magazine's writers—which was probably a necessary conceit if the audience was going to pay any attention whatsoever to what is ultimately a pretty entertaining film—the movie's creators missed what I think is the way most TNR writers sublimated their Glassian urges.
This is not to say that political writers are not also driven, and their less honorable inclinations are not checked, by a sense of public responsibility. They most definitely are, and perhaps the most disappointing thing about Shattered Glass is its final scene, which seems to deny that fact. Chuck Lane, the editor of The New Republic during much of the Glass imbroglio, has just confronted Glass and fired him, although various editors and friends-of-Steve, not fully comprehending the extent of his editorial crimes, urge Lane to be lenient. Some even consider resigning if Glass is forced out. It's unclear what the reaction of the staff will be after they hear the news of Glass's departure, but Lane is received in the conference room with a round of applause. And then Billy Ray, the director, does something very silly. He creates a match-on-action between Lane basking in the support of his staff, and a previous scene in which we see a before-the-fall Glass equally self-satisfied as he is applauded by eager journalism students at his former high school. This leaves the viewer with precisely the wrong impression about the implications of the whole Steve Glass affair, as if Lane and Glass's motivation were precisely the same, and if all of political journalism rested on a foundation of narcissism.
Sure, to some extent all opinion journalists are motivated by ego, but most are certainly not motivated entirely by ego, and I do not think it would be too much of a stretch to say that some are also motivated by a sense of public service, even if they are fooling themselves. In fact, that's the meaning of the weekly fact-checking ritual. That, I hope, is the higher purpose served by the pink highlighter.
Benjamin Soskis is pursuing a doctorate in American history at Columbia University. He was a reporter-researcher at The New Republic from 2000 to 2002.
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