New Republic writer Stephen Glass got fired for making up his stories.
But who is to blame for believing them?
Media by Tom Scocca
"There is something in the human mind that turns instinctively to fiction," H.L.
Mencken wrote in 1926, "and . . . even journalists succumb to it." He
was reflecting on what's now known as his "bathtub hoax," an entirely false
history of American bathing (culminating in Millard Fillmore's installation of
the first White House tub) that was swiftly accepted and reprinted down the
years as fact. But the late Sage of Baltimore could just as well have been
writing about the news last week that Stephen Glass, a hotshot young assistant
editor for the New Republic, had been fired after faking a cover story
about young computer hackers who extort money from corporations. A Forbes
reporter attempting to follow up on Glass's work found no sign that any of
the characters, events, and organizations in the article existed. Soon the
truth came out: the whole piece was a sham.
And it wasn't the only one. Glass was a prolific writer and apparently almost
as prolific a fraud. His back catalogue (which the New Republic removed
from its online archive) is riddled with what is in hindsight ridiculous
material. A cover story from last June about the rehabilitation of George
Bush's image includes an account of the broccoli-shunning "First Church of
George Herbert Walker Christ." An April write-up of a nonexistent National
Memorabilia Convention describes "more than 3000" Monica Lewinsky-inspired
novelty items, including "an inflatable `Leaves of Grass'-reciting sex doll
with the word INTERN stenciled across its chest."
But while everyone is marveling at the bold goofiness of Glass's inventions,
what's much more disturbing is the way his fictions were constructed. Glass
understood that even in the sober journalism practiced by the New
Republic, articles make their impact with anecdotes, not facts; his
stories, beyond the clear absurdities, are brightened up with improbably lively
scenes and unusually good quotes.
And anecdotes -- even factually true ones -- have a dangerous way of crowding
out reality. The Glass stories create such entertaining little pictures that
they slip right past the question of whether the big picture should be believed
or not. While the New Republic may have been, as the editors write in an
apology this week, victimized by "systematic and intentional deceptions," it
was a willing victim, beguiled by snazzy storytelling.
If you can tell an amusing yarn, you can go far in this country. Ronald
Reagan, the Great Communicator, drifted through eight years of presidency in a
fog of good stories, with tales of Cadillac-driving welfare queens and noble
war heroes. His critics protested that it was all made up or borrowed from
movies, but they had nothing but dull information to offer in rebuttal. Reagan
was the one who got his point across.
Glass, for his part, managed to spread his fakery far and wide. Somewhere, no
doubt, New Republic friends and foes alike have squadrons of
after-the-fact fact checkers poring over it all. In its apology, the magazine's
mortified high command says it's still checking Glass's stuff. All that they
know -- along with editors at Rolling Stone, George,
Harper's, and the other high-profile magazines Glass freelanced for --
is that they got played.
Everybody else got played, too. Though Glass is the second high-profile young
New Republic writer to get caught doing wrong recently (the first being
serial plagiarist Ruth Shalit), the press has been slow to revel in
TNR's misfortune this time around. The press, after all, was lapping up
Glass's tales of fundamentalist Christian nudists and an Alan Greenspan shrine
on Wall Street right along with everyone else. Glass stories were copied and
passed around newsrooms -- including the Phoenix's -- and marveled at.
(The Phoenix reprinted his suspiciously pungent account of debauchery at
a convention of young Republicans in its May 9, 1997, issue.)
In part, he was exploiting the ordinary little dishonesties of the news trade.
It's common journalistic practice, for instance, to describe an issue as a
struggle between interest groups -- even if an "interest group" is just one
person with a fax machine. After reading Glass's account of the real-life
exploits of Larry Klayman, an anti-Clinton crusader who rose to prominence "by
proclaiming himself a talking head on everything newsworthy," it's easy to see
how Glass got the idea for the likes of "the Committee for the Former
President's Integrity" or "the Commission to Restore the Presidency to
Greatness." The question is why TNR considered such groups reliable
enough to cover, even when Glass wrote that one's "only published address is a
post office box" and another's members "wander from city to city."
But Glass's real trick was the way he appealed to his audience's prejudices.
His most colorful material usually involved people from outside the New
Republic's readership: old folks in retirement homes, menial laborers,
backwoods Christians. The behavior he described may have been improbable, but
it conformed to stereotype. Old ladies doted, a bit battily, on obscure
political figures; a limo driver plotted seductions; religious yokels ranted
about the devil. An elderly Pole fumed about a Jewish conspiracy to keep
foul-prone heavyweight Andrew Golota from winning the title.
At the same time, the stereotypes flattered the reader, making him or her
privy to the inner workings of the common folk -- as laid bare by a bright
young lad with a Penn degree and an inquiring mind. The world, Glass assured
everyone, was just as you imagined it to be, only weirder and more
The applications of this trickery were generally subtle. Freelancing for the
Heritage Foundation's Policy Review magazine (where he'd worked before
TNR), Glass apparently did use characters for crude propaganda: "I
thanked God that some wise men privatized Social Security here," a Texas widow
says, recalling her husband's death. But his New Republic work played to
less overtly ideological prejudice. When Alec Baldwin dabbled in real politics,
we wanted to believe he would shallowly snub a policy-wonk admirer. We welcomed
the news that conservative Republicans, so hostile to the press, were secret
hedonists and hypocrites. We liked the thought of corporations quailing before
teen cybergeniuses, and of bond traders so enslaved to their lucrative work
that they kept deskside urinals.
But indulging a bias for entertainment is a risky habit. "Taxis and the
Meaning of Work," a 1996 Glass piece, shows just how ugly it can get. The
article, built around interviews and anecdotes involving Washington, DC,
cabbies, is meant to tell how immigrants have taken over the dirty work of cab
driving from American-born black people. But the article takes a startling turn
midway through, when Glass coolly describes riding with "Imran" -- no
verifiable last name -- as the Pakistani cabbie gets robbed at knifepoint by a
young black passenger.
The symbolism is naked. Imran has only picked up the passenger, Glass says, to
avoid getting in trouble for race discrimination. The industrious immigrant is
talking about his kids' schoolwork when the foul-mouthed ghetto youth pulls the
knife on him. The whole scene plays like someone's worst imagining of race and
violence in America.
The important word being imagining: Imran, Glass says, doesn't bother
calling the cops, so the writer's account is all there is to go on. And it
doesn't ring true. If Glass was already in the cab, why would the driver have
felt bound to pick up another passenger? Why wasn't Glass robbed, too? Why did
the robber take on two people alone, armed with only a knife?
The story makes a lot more sense if Glass wasn't there. And if he wasn't
there, neither was the driver or the cab. Or the knife-wielding black man.
And whether it happened or not, there are no facts in the article to support
the larger point. Glass offers no context for the racial drama, no discussion
of how likely it is that a young black passenger would be a potential robber.
The frightful scene -- undoubtedly, the image most readers carry away from the
article -- is unexamined and unexplained.
Yet the story, as was, ran in one of the country's most respected magazines,
and the reading public swallowed it whole. For that to have happened, Glass
couldn't have been the only one deceiving his readers and editors. They were
Tom Scocca can be reached at email@example.com.