Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Through a Glass Darkly
There was a time when Stephen Glass was the toast of American
journalism. Writing for the New Republic and other high-profile
publications such as Rolling Stone and Harper’s, he produced stories
of such astounding originality and insight that he became a media
star while still in his early 20s.
He wrote of a church that worshipped George H. W. Bush. He portrayed
Vernon Jordan, former head of the National Urban League and an
adviser to Bill Clinton, as a boorish and lecherous incompetent.
He penned hostile stories on the Center for Science in the Public
Interest and D.A.R.E., the anti-drug education group.
He reported on a 15-year-old who was hired as a computer security
consultant by a tech firm whose system he had hacked. He vividly told
of drinking, drugs and debauchery at the Conservative Political
His stories seemed almost too good to be true. As it turned out, they
The New Republic determined that 27 of 41 stories written by Glass
contained fabricated material. Other publications also discovered
issues. He invented events, locales, dialogue and the characters who
spoke it and devised elaborate cover-up schemes in an attempt to hide
Glass was ultimately banished from the profession where he joined
such other disgraced journalists as Washington Post reporter Janet
Cook (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning account of an 8-year-old heroin
addict turned out to be fiction), Jayson Blair (who engaged in a long
history of misdeeds including plagiarism while working for the New
York Times) and Rupert Murdoch (who presides over a media empire
crippled by a phone hacking scandal).
But Glass never entirely went away. When the scandal surrounding his
career broke, he became the subject of a well-received movie called
“Shattered Glass.” He appeared on “60 Minutes.” He wrote a
“biographical novel” called “The Fabulist ” which his publisher
described as “a rollicking, riveting tour de force…”
Now that he has rung every last dime from his infamy, he has emerged
from the shadows because he wants to practice law in California.
It turns out that while be was engaged in ethical sleight of hand as
a writer, he was attending law school at Georgetown. He graduated
magna cum laude and passed the New York state bar exam but was
refused certification on moral grounds. He withdrew his application
when it became clear he wouldn’t be admitted to practice.
He applied to practice in California, was denied by Bar Examiners,
appealed, and was subsequently found to be of “good moral character”
by the state Bar’s hearing department. The matter is now before the
state Supreme Court which will decide his professional fate.
So has Glass rehabilitated himself? He blames a bad upbringing for
his misdeeds and says years of therapy have helped him to become a
better person. We’ll have to take his word for it and his word hasn’t
always been golden.
Should he now be allowed to engage in a profession where the
manipulation of facts can have life or death consequences?
I think not. For one thing, Glass’s old habits seem to surface again and again. He stated to the New York Bar that he “worked with all three magazines and other publications … to identify which facts were true and which were false in all of his stories so they could publish clarifications,” according to a story by Reuters
reporter Jack Shafer.
This statement was false, the committee wrote, because Glass didn’t
work with all the magazines. Glass later testified that he should
have said that he “offered” to work with the publications, and “by
‘offered’ to work, he meant through counsel.”
Shafer writes that the committee found this Glass explanation
“disingenuous.” The committee also damned Glass for providing the New
York Bar in 2003 with an incomplete list of articles that he
fabricated, identifying only 23, and waiting until August 2009, when
in the crosshairs of the California bar, to concede that the complete
list contained at least 42 fabricated pieces.
To be sure, Glass has his supporters. During one hearing in 2010,
they included two psychiatrists, four law professors, two judges, 10
attorneys and even Martin Peretz, sole owner of the New Republic at
the time the fabricated stories were published, according to
Glass even has supporters at the New York Times and Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial, admonished the California
state Supreme Court justices to “be guided by a principle that should
infuse the law in general: that redemption is possible and that those
who have changed their ways are entitled to a second chance. Because
Glass shattered one career doesn't mean that he can't aspire to
Joe Nocera, writing in the New York Times, said that “The California
Bar should be so lucky as to have him as a member.”
I’m frankly surprised that these two publications would play warm and
fuzzy with an individual who delivered a near death-blow to the
credibility of American journalism which was already losing the
respect of its public when he came upon the scene.
Would either publication hire an allegedly rehabilitated Glass as a
reporter? You bet they would not.
But it’s OK to foist him off on the legal profession which can use
all the ethics, honesty and truth it can muster.
I do not wish to see Stephen Glass on a street corner begging for
spare change. It is absurd to think, however, that denying him a
license to practice law would force him to eat out of dumpsters. He
is brilliant, well educated and still young enough at 39 to make a
positive contribution to society.
We would all be better off if that contribution came from somewhere
besides a newsroom or a courthouse.