Disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass's tall tales seemed plausible at the time.
By Tom Scocca
MAY 26, 1998: "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 compelling.
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 deceiving themselves.
Tom Scocca can be reached at email@example.com.
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