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Stephen Glass is still retracting his fabricated stories — 18 years later

Stephen Glass, who as a staff writer at the New Republic in the 1990s perpetrated what may be the most spectacular, sustained campaign of fabrication known to American journalism, is still retracting his work.

Glass' latest confession concerns "Prophets and Losses," which appeared in the February 1998 issue of Harper's Magazine and purported to relate his experiences as a telephone psychic. According to a letter from Glass that appears in the magazine's January 2016 issue, which dropped into my mailbox Monday, almost all of the piece was fabricated. That includes lengthy exchanges with customers of the psychic hotline service that signed him up as well as conversations ostensibly with a supervisor.

"I lied to the staff of Harper's," he says in the published letter. "I fabricated interviews about this story. I engaged in egregious misconduct. This story should not be relied upon in any way."

Harper's has now retracted the entire article, though it has left the piece in its online archives, with the word "RETRACTED" appearing on every page of the archived piece in scarlet letters. A sample, with the portions Glass identifies as fabricated highlighted in yellow, can be found here.

Why is Glass confessing now? He didn't respond to my call to his office at a Beverly Hills law firm, where he serves as a non-lawyer staff member, but it's reasonable to conclude that it's related to his quest for a California law license. He was turned down last year because of his past misdeeds but is eligible to reapply in 2017. By then, he'll have to show that he's come completely clean. (He also has returned the $10,000 Harper's paid him for the piece.)

Before we get into the new questions raised by this sudden redress of a nearly 18-year-old offense, let's take a quick look at the history of the Glass case. 

Glass was a rising star at the New Republic when it was at the zenith of its influence among Clinton-era neo-liberals in Washington. His specialty was detail-rich reportage with a fluent prose style and a debunking edge: a piece about young male conservatives at a political conference secretly boozing it up, smoking pot and bringing girls up to their hotel rooms to humiliate; a Wall Street firm where the traders took time off from their desks to pray to an icon of Alan Greenspan; a memorabilia conference hawking Monica Lewinsky-themed items. These turned out to be partially or wholly fabricated.

The article that brought Glass down portrayed a teenage hacker being lavished with gifts and money by a computer company hoping to be spared his attacks. The piece caught the eye of Adam Penenberg of Forbes' digital unit, who thought it strange that he couldn't find any evidence that the computer firm existed. In short order, Glass was exposed as having not only fabricated the yarn and the firm, but his notes, records of phone conversations, even the imaginary firm's website.

To Penenberg, the story looked transparently false, but editors and staff at the New Republic had been taken in by Glass' wheedling, vulnerable personality, his projection of wide-eyed naivete, and — perhaps more than anything else — his skill at creating prose pictures that tended to reinforce their own prejudices about young conservatives, Wall Street bond traders and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. And not only the New Republic; hot magazines such as Harper's and John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George clamored for Glass' freelance work.

Almost immediately after Forbes and the New Republic established that the hacker story, entitled "Hack Heaven," was fraudulent, the New Republic fired Glass. Some weeks later, the magazine disclosed that 27 of the 41 pieces bearing his name had been wholly or partially fabricated. Hollywood based a movie, "Shattered Glass," on a Vanity Fair article about the case by Buzz Bissinger, starring Hayden Christensen as Glass. 

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FOR THE RECORD

9:26 a.m., Dec. 18: An earlier version of this post stated that the New Republic fired Glass after learning and disclosing that 27 of his articles were fabricated. In fact, Glass was fired prior to those disclosures and after only one article was determined to be fraudulent.

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Glass, who had received a law degree from Georgetown University law school, tried to launch a new career as an attorney. His effort to win a law license in California reached all the way to the state Supreme Court, which finally turned him down in January 2014 in a blistering 35-page decision that accused him of continuing his deceptions right up through the application process. Despite his claims to the contrary, the court found that Glass still hadn't come clean about many of the articles he faked. New fabrications kept coming to light, including those in the Harper's article.

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Today, Glass is employed as "director of special projects" at the Beverly Hills law firm of Carpenter, Zuckerman and Rowley. (The firm represented former Times sportswriter T.J. Simers in a discrimination case; Simers won a $7.13-million jury award from The Times, which is under appeal. Glass worked on the case and attended the trial.) 

That brings us back to "Prophets and Losses." The information in Glass' letter suggests that the Supreme Court was right to conclude that he hadn't entirely come clean: He provides a new, detailed road map to the multiple fabrications in the piece, in some places listing them paragraph by paragraph. Oddly, Glass gets some of it wrong. He seems to miscount the paragraphs at the beginning of the article and misidentifies one of his faked characters as "Sharona"; in the article, she's "Sharonna."

There's little point in revisiting the question of what pathology or personality flaw drove Glass to his long campaign of fabrication. (Bissinger's excavation of Glass' life as the child of an ambitious upper-middle professional family in the Chicago suburbs goes about as deep as one might wish.) 

What's more interesting is to compare what Glass faked for Harper's to what he didn't fake. His imaginary characters are lower-class, often minority figures, depicted as credulous and uneducated, sometimes speaking in dialect — "Dis be Lowell," states one fabricated client. "You're the worstest psy-chic I ever gone to." The ostensibly unfabricated Stephen Glass, by contrast, tries to do right even while masquerading as a phone psychic, telling his clients to stay in school or go to church.

One can guess what might have flown under the Harper's editors' radar in all this. Who would they think a psychic phone line's clients might be? No one with Ivy League diction, that's for sure. Indeed, the California court had noticed Glass' "vicious, mean spirit and ... prejudice against various ethnic groups."

This points to one of the scarier features of the entire Glass affair, which is the number of newspaper and magazine editors who blamed those at the New Republic and other magazines for missing the obvious clues to Glass' fraud. Certainly there were many such clues, but the critics' confidence that they would have caught him falls flat. Glass played on his bosses' prejudices, but we all have our prejudices, and they can bite us at any time.

The final question about the Glass confession is why Harper's waited until now to retract the story. It was identified after his initial exposure as a suspect piece, and his acknowledgment that it was faked was cited by the California Supreme Court almost two years ago. 

Giulia Melucci, the spokeswoman for Harper's, says the magazine has left the article in its archives, with the retraction note, so the archive could remain "a true and complete record of the magazine." She says that in 1998, the editors asked Glass, through his lawyers, to "give us an accounting of what was true or false but there was no response. Until now." (The Supreme Court noted in its ruling that Glass was evasive about whether he had come clean with Harper's, saying that he had relied on his lawyers to do so but hadn't checked up with them.) 

The Harper's editors' note says this is the first retraction in the magazine's 165-year history. "We remain committed to getting the story straight month after month, year after year — and to making sure no one like Stephen Glass is ever allowed to fool us again."

That said, the heading they placed on the Glass letter and their response is: "Hindsight is 20/20." When I asked Melucci whether that should be read both as a criticism of Glass for having fooled them and self-criticism for their having been fooled, she replied, "It is indeed as you state."

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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