I remember the story as one of the best pieces I’d ever read in Harper’s. It was about a reporter who decided to get hired on as a phone psychic just to see what it was like. He quickly figured out the rules of the phone psychic con — making his predictions unspecific, letting callers fill in details they really wanted to hear, keeping someone on the phone far longer than they wanted to be there. I remember being jealous of the reporter for coming up with the idea and turning it into a first-rate story. And I remember the shock a few years later when the story and its writer turned out to be as fake as a “Jerry Springer Show” taping.
The writer, Stephen Glass, conjured up dozens of other phony masterpieces for a string of magazines, only getting tripped up when another reporter tried to do a follow-up story. The scandal nearly cratered New Republic magazine, and Glass resigned himself to the journalism hall of shame, also known as “law school.”
For a trade based on asking strangers questions and expecting truthful answers, journalism has produced quite a number of liars. Over the past few years, reporters have been busted for made-up quotes and imaginary people, even faking colleges and companies. But only a few have been so daring to fabricate entire stories from scratch. Pre-Glass, the tallest tale-teller was Janet Cooke, who came up with a story for The Washington Post about a little boy addicted to drugs that was so convincing it won a Pulitzer. The heroin-addled tot didn’t exist, the Pulitzers took their prize back, and Cooke last surfaced behind the Liz Claiborne counter at Hudson’s in Kalamazoo.
Cooke famously faked one story. Glass faked all or parts of nearly 30 stories — it’s hard to be specific, because even five years after he fessed up, he still hasn’t given a full account of his menagerie of mendacity. So word of Shattered Glass, a Hollywood version of Stevie’s wonders, has not received the warmest reception among my reporter colleagues, most of whom would only pay to see the film if they could roast s’mores on a bonfire of the print.
Given the movie’s topic and its financial backing from noted media critic Tom Cruise, I was crouched and ready to hate it, but Shattered Glass turns out to be a well-done scam film that plays to fascination with natural-born con men. Writer-director Billy Ray’s fidelity to facts — dates appear on screen in that typewriter font used in every journalism movie to indicate truth — conjures the bitchiness and insecurity of a real newsroom. He puts the audience in the position of Glass’ colleagues, who saw massive talent waiting to blossom from a childish 25-year-old. And Hayden Christensen, proving Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones wasn’t his fault, carries off Glass with the right mix of supplication, enthusiasm and sorrow, tweaking the mix as the game of liar’s poker escalates.
Despite some pompous jibber-jabber, there’s really not much at stake in Shattered Glass, and the movie hits a jarring false note in its final act. But Shattered Glass gets the story right, and does so without turning Glass into someone you care about.
A writer for Slate magazine recently asked readers to mail in their thoughts on what tasks Glass should be forced to do to atone for his crimes. The replies ranged from the easy (scut work at a fast-food chain) to the mildly creative (a free month of labor to everyone he lied about in print) to the far-too-harsh (forced to root for the Cubs for life). As someone who makes a living in journalism, I’d like to be angrier about a man who’s put a permanent stain on the craft, but I can’t find the energy. I think I’ve just hit my lifetime quota of thinking about Stephen Glass.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; call 248-263-2111.
E-mail Justin Hyde at firstname.lastname@example.org.