Fabricators: bewitched, bothered and bewildering

Like most Americans, I'm appalled by the very thought that some of society's worst miscreants can turn their misdeeds into hard cash with book deals, movie sales and the increasingly lucrative lecture circuit.

As a journalist, I'm especially bothered when the likes of Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass try to profit from betraying their colleagues and besmirching their profession. When the outpouring of media attention that inevitably accrues to these journalistic reprobates tends to glamorize them -- intentionally or not -- my rage reaches meltdown levels.

So it was with considerable trepidation that I sat down to watch "Shattered Glass," the just-opened movie version of the meteoric rise and fall of Stephen Glass. Glass was the "white-hot rising star in Washington journalism" (as Vanity Fair called him) who got fired after fabricating all or parts of 27 stories for the New Republic and showing an equal disdain for the truth in his work for several other national magazines.

I knew that while Glass -- surprise, surprise -- had already written and had published a fictionalized account of his experience (a novel titled "The Fabulist"), he had not participated in the movie and would not profit financially from it. But I was worried that the movie would glamorize him, would make it seem that he was just a poor, young, misunderstood kid in over his head in a highly competitive environment and -- well, to some young, impressionable, would-be journalists, a movie and a six-figure book advance and spot on "60 Minutes" and all that other big-time attention before you're even 30 might not seem like such a bad trade-off for temporary disgrace.

The lure of the spotlight

Ever since "All the President's Men" rightly glamorized two real reporters, who did serious, honest, important work, I've worried that too many young journalists are more eager to return their agents' calls than their sources' calls, more interested in speaking fees than editors' suggestions, more determined to see themselves portrayed on the silver screen than to see their reporting through to the end.

In the case of "Shattered Glass," at least, I needn't have worried. To me, Glass wound up looking even worse in the movies than he had in print. I already knew that he was a pathological liar and dishonest journalist, and the movie makes no attempt to justify or sugarcoat his transgressions. What I didn't know was that -- as portrayed in this movie at least -- he was so smarmy and transparent in his obsequious behavior, so nauseatingly disingenuous in his self-deprecation. Indeed, given his unctuous portrayal in the movie, I found it hard to believe he could've risen so far and so fast in the cynical, rough-and-tumble world of Washington journalism. I found myself disliking him almost as much as I like the movie itself.

"Was Glass really like that?" I asked Charles Lane, the New Republic editor who fired Glass five years ago after skeptical questions by a reporter for Forbes Digital Tool began to unravel the very fabric of Glass' fabrications.

"No, he wasn't always unctuous," says Lane, now a reporter for the Washington Post. "But this eagerness to please, this softness, this unctuousness was such a key part of the con he was running that I think it's a legitimate condensation of the characteristics that are essential to this story."

Glass fooled his colleagues at the time, Lane says, but "we now realize that this unbelievably affable persona was part of the elaborate cover he used to perpetuate his scam."

Lane, who comes off as something of a hero in the movie -- stiff and humorless but determined to root out the truth about Glass' stories and then to fire Glass, despite his popularity with the staff -- feels much the same way about the entire movie as he does about its depiction of Glass' ingratiating ways.

"It's not accurate in every single detail," he says. "They create characters who never existed ... and scenes that are openly fantastical, that never happened ... but some are almost verbatim reconstructions [and] in capturing the spirit of events, I think they do an admirable job. They provide a reasonable interpretation, a very defensible portrayal."

Although I realize Lane is talking about a movie, not a documentary, it is a movie based on a nonfiction magazine story (from Vanity Fair), and it does purport to tell the Stephen Glass story. I worry that this laissez-faire, "reasonable interpretation" mind-set is part of what enabled Glass to get away for so long with his duplicity.

Some young journalists seem to think that "capturing the spirit of events" -- the "larger truth," they often call it -- is more important (and definitely more attention-getting) than reporting the facts as they actually happened.

It's always easy, with 20/20 hindsight, to say that someone like Glass should have been caught sooner. Every editor knows that any story that's too good to be true -- a fair description of many of Glass' stories -- usually isn't true.

Baffling question

The larger, overriding -- and unanswered -- question in "Shattered Glass" is: Why did he do it?

Hayden Christensen, the actor who portrays Glass, has attributed it to "the amount of pressure Glass felt ... to go above and beyond what his family would expect him to achieve ... and just really kind of loving the taste he got from the first success of his fabricated article."

Jayson Blair also loved the taste of attention and adulation that accrued to him after his first ventures into fiction and fabrication in the pages of the New York Times.

What I don't understand about any of this is why journalism itself, properly practiced, wasn't enough for Glass or Blair. Why did these two smart, talented and, yes, ambitious young men think they had to lie and cheat to be successful?

Here they were, in their mid-20s, already in the big leagues -- the New Republic and the New York Times -- and all they had to do was use the considerable journalistic skills that even their deceived detractors acknowledge they have and they could have been successful, maybe even rich and famous, without selling their souls and selling out their colleagues.

I remember feeling the same sense of bewilderment when Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Steve Howe and several other excellent baseball players essentially threw away their careers in exchange for the temporary high-cum-escape of recreational drug use.

Wasn't winning a World Series and starting in two All-Star games by age 24 a big enough "high" for Strawberry?

I was also in my mid-20s when I got into the big leagues -- the Los Angeles Times -- and it would never have occurred to me, in my wildest imagination, to make up a quote or to create a character, never mind an entire story. Did my father -- a disabled, divorced, eighth-grade dropout -- instill in me better values than did the parents of Glass and Blair? Or is Los Angeles far enough from the New York-Washington media hothouse that I was insulated from the competitive pressures, tensions and temptations to which Glass and Blair were subjected? Or have times simply changed that much? After all, I started at The Times four years before Watergate, the crime -- and eight years before Watergate, the movie.

I don't know. I suspect it must be a combination of all these factors plus some I haven't mentioned. What I do know, though, is that journalism -- print journalism -- had better find a way to persuade its young, talented practitioners and would-be practitioners that if they want to write fiction, they should try novels or screenplays, not newspapers or magazines.

Better yet, editors must convince these novice reporters that for all the hard work involved, finding and writing the truth about the important issues of the day can be even more satisfying and rewarding than writing fiction in the guise of fact. Ultimately, it's also far less dangerous.

Maybe the nation's journalism schools should include a showing of "Shattered Glass" in their curricula.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.

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