In 1998, the writing staff of the Washington, DC, politico magazine the New Republic are all comers — bright young folks on their way up in journalism. The writer with the most brilliant career ahead of him is also the youngest on staff and office pet, Stephen Glass. Glass’s stories stand out among his colleagues’ policy reports and in-depth think pieces, and break the monotony of the magazine’s politics-and-culture beat with fresh you-had-to-be-there stories, such as one about the debauched goings-on at a young Conservatives’ convention with twentysomethings praising Pat Buchanan while binge drinking and ordering hookers. They have the most perfect quotes and colorful characters.
That’s because Glass’s stories are all bullshit. During his tenure at the magazine, twenty-seven of his forty-one pieces were fabricated either completely or partially. Shattered Glass (2003) is a lightly fictionalized account of how this deception was uncovered; the film also takes pains to explain how a fantastic hoax like this could be perpetrated in the first place, and why it took so long to be detected.
After an editorial shake-up in which beloved editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) is replaced by fellow staff writer Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), the writers at the New Republic are on their guard, making sure their pieces are letter perfect since they can no longer count on the mother-hen level of protection that Kelly provided. Glass (Hayden Christensen) is feeling spread thin, given his full-time work as staff writer at the magazine combined with law school at night. But somehow, he manages to maintain his quota of outlandish research efforts, his newest being “Hack Heaven,” an exposé of a little-known hacker convention and an investigation into the helplessness of corporations who are being targeted by said hackers, and the legal initiatives states are pursuing to counteract the efforts of these digital pirates.
The piece is so good that Forbes Digital, a new online-only offshoot of the financial journal, wonders why they themselves didn’t pick up on the story. As they begin to dig into the names and facts, they smell a rat. After hours of searching for the state initiatives cited in Glass’s piece (no evidence that they exist) and the lawyers and investigators quoted (no such record that these people are real), Forbes reporter Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) concedes, “There is one thing in this story that checks out . . . there does appear to be a state in the union named Nevada.”
Forbes pounces on Lane and Glass, asking to do a follow-up story and requesting contact details for all sources quoted in “Hack Heaven.” Glass hems and haws and supplies a set of phone numbers that go to voice mail, and email addresses that bounce back. As the integrity of the piece begins to fall apart, Glass interrupts in a voice-over narration with an explanation: “There is a hole in the fact-checking system . . .” He goes on to elaborate the circuitous review process an article endures before it is published, where every quote, comma, and detail is checked and rechecked for accuracy. But with some story types, the kind that Glass specializes in, the only way certain facts can be verified is against the reporter’s own notes.
As it begins to seem more and more like a clever group of hackers have snowed a green reporter with a colorful story, editor Lane has a nagging feeling. Glass’s passive-aggressive ploys for sympathy (starting conversations with the childish “Are you mad at me?”) feel too calculated, and he seems to have an answer for everything, even the inexplicable. Lane digs further and eventually uncovers the truth: Glass wasn’t fooled by a group of hackers. Glass was the one fooling everyone.
The news of Glass’s fabulism broke in the summer of 1998, ushering in a decade-long slew of scandals that exposed how fragile the truth can be when placed in the wrong hands. In May 2003, the New York Times exposed a deception in their own newsroom perpetrated by reporter Jayson Blair, who had habitually misquoted sources, invented facts, and plagiarized others’ work. In a retraction piece by the paper’s editors, they called the deception “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” In 2006 it was revealed that author James Frey’s best-selling memoir about addiction, A Million Little Pieces (2003), was mostly the author’s invention, a revelation that rocked the publishing industry. The book’s publisher, Random House, offered refunds to any buyer who felt deceived, and Oprah Winfrey, who had selected the memoir for her book club, brought Frey on to her show and picked apart his fabrications: “I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”
In light of the seventeen years between the film’s release and this writing, the horror with which the New Republic absorbs the revelation about Glass’s deception is heartening. The idea that someone would fabricate stories out of whole cloth and then weave an elaborate web of deception to cover his tracks sounds par for the course in our post-truth era; these days, such awfulness would likely generate not a scandal, but a weary eye roll. Shattered Glass now feels like a folk tale, a fable whose moral is to retain your humanity even if it costs you personally. The bogeyman is no longer Glass himself, a type who’s now ubiquitous in every profession that requires ambition. The monsters today are those editors, politicians, and readers who cast a blind eye on tall tales and lies in order to reap profits, boost ratings, and gain market share.
As the dismayed staff at the New Republic spring into action with a letter of retraction, revised editorial procedures, and legal actions, we’re impressed by the humility and grace with which a group of talented, ambitious people admit they made a mistake and take pains to correct it. Whatever the cost.
This essay originally appeared on my site Sleeping All Day. For more essays about unusual films and interviews with folks in the movie-watching business, visit www.sleepingallday.com