Disgraced reporter once inspired

Times Staff Writer

A strange, somewhat uncomfortable feeling overcame me the other day as I walked out of the Hollywood premiere of "Shattered Glass," a movie about notorious journalistic fabricator Stephen Glass.

Here, on screen, was the tale of my onetime friend's meteoric rise at the New Republic magazine and how his career came crashing down in 1998 after he invented a story about computer hackers. It later was determined that he made up all or part of more than two dozen stories at the magazine.

I knew a far different Steve Glass. I was a journalism neophyte at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992-93, and Glass was my mentor. As my editor at the college newspaper, he instilled in me journalistic values and the importance of accurate, balanced reporting.

So many years later, the movie made me think about the similar mark Glass left on others at my paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. We learned to follow the rules from the very reporter who now is a poster child for ethical breaches.

The reporters he trained have moved up the ranks of some of the nation's top publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Miami Herald.

Jeremy Kahn was a freshman with me at Penn when Glass edited general assignment reporters. Kahn now is a reporter at Fortune, currently in Africa as a Pew International Journalism Fellow.

"I sometimes joke with people that 'I learned everything I know about journalism from Stephen Glass,' which is an interesting way to introduce yourself, especially to other journalists," Kahn said in an e-mail. "It also happens to be true.

"Steve actually had a fairly large impact on me. I thought he was a great editor. The thing is: He said all the right things even if in his own career he did all the wrong ones."

Kahn recalled an instance as a cub reporter when he was trying to confirm the existence of a bank account for an investigative story and Glass intervened.

"I thought I might call the bank and try to impersonate the account holder," he said. "Steve warned against doing this and encouraged me to find a way to confirm the account without having to misrepresent myself."

Scott Calvert, a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, remembered how Glass' enthusiasm energized younger reporters. Calvert was managing editor at the Daily Pennsylvanian in 1993, when Glass was in charge.

"The fervor with which he pursued stories was amazing, and you couldn't help getting caught up in it all," Calvert said. "He imparted this great enthusiasm, this excitement about getting the good story, about writing the story."

Calvert recalled marching with Glass into the student government offices at Penn, demanding to review phone records. The investigation showed that student leaders had been calling home on the college's dime, forcing them to repay a whopping $12.66.

After graduating in 1994, Glass went to work at the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review before moving to the New Republic.

Randi Marshall, a business reporter at Newsday in New York, said she was "in awe" of Glass when he was the Daily Pennsylvanian editor and afterward, as he quickly ascended the journalism ladder. "I remember thinking to myself, 'If I could do half of what he did at the DP, then I would be a pretty good journalist.' "

Now, though, Marshall has other thoughts, such as whether our association with Glass will brand us as "tarnished."

Glass had a huge impact on me too. In fall 1993, he tiptoed around Penn's campus with me in the middle of the night looking for security guards asleep on the job. And he inspired me to become top editor at the paper two years after he held the post. That helped me land my first job at the Dallas Morning News.

I was not eager to contact Glass. I hadn't talked to him since he was exposed as a liar, and I felt it would be awkward.

But journalists are supposed to ask reluctant sources tough questions of even if it makes them squeamish. That's what Glass taught me anyway.

So I e-mailed Steve and asked for an interview. He quickly responded, calling my note a "wonderful surprise." Instead of giving me his number, though, he asked for mine.

A week ago Saturday, at our appointed hour, the phone rang. It was Steve.

As a health-care reporter at The Times, I am not at all nervous about asking tough questions. I do it all the time. But somehow, because Glass once was a friend, my hand was shaking.

He seemed almost dismissive when I told him that I'd been reminiscing with friends from our college paper and that they'd had lots of good memories about him.

"I guess when I think back on these things, I'm more consumed with the shame I feel about how I betrayed so many people, so I haven't really spent any time really reflecting on a way I may have been a positive influence," he said. "I would hope that at some point my life would be defined not by things I'm most ashamed of but by other aspects of it."

Glass now is working on a second novel and waiting to hear if he has been admitted to the New York Bar. His application is pending with its committee on character and fitness.

As for "Shattered Glass," he said he saw it but had to look away at certain points, like when watching a scary film. "This experience was my own horror film," he said. "It's clearly a painful experience, and watching the movie was incredibly painful." (Glass is played by Hayden Christensen of "Star Wars" fame.)

Calvert, the Baltimore Sun reporter, said he kept in touch with Glass after the scandal broke in 1998.

Now, Calvert is upset that Glass has profited from his deceptions by hawking a novel about a fictional reporter named Stephen Glass who is fired for fabricating stories.

And Calvert is upset that Glass is dabbling again in journalism by writing a piece for the September issue of Rolling Stone about Canada's marijuana laws.

"I'm all for second chances, but I really believe Steve forfeited his right to do journalism," Calvert said.

I can't disagree with that.

As our interview wrapped up, Glass said over and over how he had a "great deal of remorse."

"I feel remorse toward people like you, Charlie," he said. "I feel you had a right to expect me to behave very differently."

I believe him, but it's a lot easier to say "I'm sorry" than to do the right thing in the first place.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World