Apropos of absolutely nothing at all

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Shattered Glass (Dir: Billy Ray, 2003)

“After all, we are in the entertainment business.” Rupert Murdoch, after the exposure of the Hitler Diaries forgery.

I blame Konrad Kujau and Robert Harris. Actually, probably Orson Welles too, having been bowled over by his classic, and criminally overlooked, F For Fake. But anyway, as some of you will remember, Konrad Kujau was the ebullient forger behind the 1983 Hitler Diaries scandal which led to some of the world’s biggest news organisations handing over huge sums of money for sixty-odd volumes of fake Führer diaries. More than that, what Harris did in his book Selling Hitler was something that genuinely impressed me – a work of straight journalism that reads like a roller-coaster thriller, just because the story it’s telling is so bizarre.

This is what’s probably sparked a long-term interest in forgers and con artists. But as it happens, the most interesting thing about the Hitler Diaries scandal is not the personality of Kujau himself – the elusive “Dr Fischer” seems to have been a charming chancer on the make – but the circumstances, the processes, that allowed the scandal to reach the point it did. Firstly, when he started out selling fake Hitler paintings, he was aided by the fact that collecting Nazi memorabilia was (and is) illegal in Germany, leading to a secretive and tightly-knit fraternity of collectors, many of them Nazi veterans, who were unlikely to go to the feds if they suspected a forgery. Gain the trust of this shadowy world, and you had it made.

Kujau should have come a cropper when he moved on to dealing with the press, but didn’t. In the first place, because Gerd Heidemann was a desperate man – a reporter in financial difficulties with his career on the slide, who couldn’t pass up the chance of the scoop of a lifetime. When we come to the news organisations – Stern in the first instance, but also the Sunday Times, Newsweek etc – greed blinded them. The scoop, if true, was incredibly lucrative; the desire to keep a lid on leaks meant there wasn’t proper forensic analysis; above all, these experienced editors and executives allowed themselves to be duped because they wanted to be duped. They so badly wanted the diaries to be real that they didn’t do the necessary checks. It was a pretty unedifying affair all round. Kujau, at least, had the excuse of being a crook.

So, anyway. That wasn’t the first time the esteemed profession of journalism had fallen prey to a clever hoaxer, and it wouldn’t be the last. Which leads me to this film. He isn’t as well known on this side of the pond, but in the list of American journalistic scandals, in between Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair there came Stephen Glass. Who in a way is one of the most fascinating con artists of them all, and this is the story that Billy Ray expertly tells us.

We are introduced to Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a 25-year-old rising star at venerable DC political magazine The New Republic. He seems like a nice chap. He goes around being nice to people in the office, helping out colleagues with their stories, generally being warm, witty and charming. Oh yes, and his pitches in story conferences are wonderfully entertaining. He turns in these brilliant, vivid articles that make other TNR writers feel like dull plodders by comparison. Not only is he a main feature writer on TNR, the precocious Glass is also getting high-profile articles in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, George, and, we are led to believe, is beating off job offers with a stick. He’s the American Dream.

Then, about half an hour into the movie, it all goes to pot.

Where it all goes to pot is when TNR runs a typically vivid Glass piece about computer hackers. Specifically, 15-year-old hacker Ian Restil, who had hacked the website of major California software company Jukt Micronics, only for Jukt to hire him at an extortionate sum to run their security. Great story, right? Yes, until Forbes tech writer Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) gets asked by his editor how he could possibly have missed it. Penenberg tries to follow up Glass’s scoop, and… oh what the hell, I’ll let the real-life Penenberg speak for himself:

Our first step was to plug Jukt Micronics into a bunch of search engines. We found no web site, odd for a “big-time software firm.” Our next step was to contact the Software Publishers Association of America. Nothing. Next on our list was the California Franchise Tax Board. An official from the Tax Board confirmed that Jukt Micronics had never paid any taxes. Further investigations revealed that Jukt Micronics, if it existed at all, was not listed under any of California’s 15 area codes. Sarah Gilmer from the office of the California Secretary of State said there was no record of the company, “as a corporation, a limited liability or limited partnership.” 

A search of Lexis-Nexis’ extensive database turned up only one reference to Jukt Micronics: Glass’s New Republic story…

Next on our checklist was the official-sounding “Center for Interstate Online Investigations,” supposedly a joint police project in 18 states, and the “Computer Security Center,” a supposed advocacy group. Both organizations had inside-the-Beltway bureaucratic names, but officials at the Justice Department, the FBI, the U.S. Customs Department and police departments in California and New Hampshire (both aggressive cybercrime fighters) had never heard of these organizations. 

Wait. There’s more. 

Glass also cited an organization called the “National Assembly of Hackers,” which he claimed had sponsored a recent hacker conference in Bethesda, Md. Surely this was real. But no. Despite our best efforts, we could not unearth a single hacker who had even heard of this outfit, let alone attended the conference. 

Glass reported that 21 states were considering versions of the “Uniform Computer Security Act,” which would “criminalize immunity deals between hackers and companies.” Again, law enforcement officials were unaware of any such law, and the National Conference of Commissions on Uniform State Laws, based in Chicago, reported no knowledge of it. 

In short, nothing in the story could be verified. Even Jukt Micronics’ phone number turned out to be a cell phone.

Ouch! To summarise, Glass’ “Hack Heaven” piece for TNR was a sham from start to finish. Of course, this was just grist to the mill of those low-down online journalists at Forbes, especially given that TNR was just about the snootiest, most highfalutin journalistic outlet in the United States. The British equivalent, I suppose, would be a particularly waggy-fingered columnist on the Independent being caught out making stuff up.

At this point, the Forbes journalists approach Glass’ TNR editor Chuck Lane (master of understated acting Peter Sarsgaard) with their evidence that Glass’ story doesn’t check out. This is where the film does a nice little switch of mood. Up until now, Glass has been a fairly sympathetic protagonist, while Lane seems a little dull by comparison, even a little jealous of Glass’ flair and popularity. However, as we move into Lane investigating Glass, that all gets turned on its head, as we see Lane stepping into the role of an honest editor slowly discovering that his star writer is a pathological liar. There’s also some nice ambiguity here – Billy Ray’s direction gives a slightly brighter, more colourful look to scenes that are taking place entirely in Glass’ imagination, but it’s quite subtle, and often leaves us wondering what’s real and what’s false.

Our view of Glass also changes quite dramatically. When he’s initially found out, he has a window where he could come clean, apologise and salvage a bit of dignity. But he doesn’t. Any admissions have to be wrung out of him like blood from a stone, and even then he’s working on cover-ups. He lies and whines and wheedles and lies again. He lobbies friends and colleagues ferociously. He quite shamelessly plays on office politics, centred around staff resentment at Lane replacing revered former editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria, in a rare straight role). At one point, he even issues a not very thinly veiled suicide threat. Eventually he forfeits whatever sympathy we might have felt for him at the outset.

The reason for this, as becomes clear, is that “Hack Heaven” was the tip of a very large iceberg. When that one piece turns out to be a hoax, Lane goes through the Glass back catalogue and finds a whole raft of stories that, in this new context, suddenly look very dodgy indeed. We also feel Lane’s frustration in having to talk to colleagues who can’t see what Glass has done that’s so wrong, because they don’t know the detail. Not knowing the scale of the deception, they still assume that he’s basically a good kid who messed up once or twice. The way out of this – well, after summarily firing Glass – is to run a fact-checking exercise on all his TNR articles. This is what finally brings the magazine’s staff around to a sense of what exactly has gone wrong, something so seriously wrong that their personal liking for Glass can’t excuse it. As Lane says, “He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact… because we found him entertaining.”

That’s the basic drama, and it’s a good one. But it’s also well worth listening to the DVD commentary from writer/director Billy Ray and former TNR editor Charles Lane, who fill in a lot of the background.

So, the TNR investigation determined that, out of 41 Glass articles the magazine had run, 27 were either wholly or partially fabricated. Some interwove fact and fiction, some were made up in their entirety. Which, as Lane reminds us, is not to say that the other 14 can be assumed to be clean – it’s just that TNR couldn’t prove them to be false. Glass himself didn’t come clean about what exactly he had falsified. This is quite a catalogue of misdeeds, and you can get a sense of it here.

There are two interlinked questions arising from this. One is why Glass did what he did, and the other is why it took so long to catch him.

As for motivation, to say Glass was a fantasist is only half the story. If we take his word for it (and there’s no reason we should, but it makes sense) he made things up because real life wasn’t vivid enough for the articles he wanted to write. He wanted every article to be brilliant, and would draft articles that weren’t quite brilliant enough – he was missing a killer quote or a telling bit of colour. So he started “improving” quotes, and before you know it he was inventing stories out of whole cloth.

But there’s certainly more to it than that. Glass was clearly highly intelligent, had risen very quickly in journalism straight out of college, was a talented writer and there is no question that he was capable of doing straight journalism if he wanted to. The sheer amount of industry that went into his fabrications could have been used researching real stories. We can’t just put this down to a young reporter with a punishing workload – it’s a question of character.

The other question is that of TNR’s processes. Michael Kelly had come to TNR from The New Yorker, and had brought with him that magazine’s fearsome tradition of fact-checking. This should have caught out a fabulist at an early stage. But it didn’t. Why?

Partly, I suppose, it was a question of resources. Few publications have the resources of The New Yorker. In the case of TNR, that meant three underpaid and severely overworked young fact-checkers trying to go through the whole magazine’s content on a weekly basis. Moreover, Glass himself had been a fact-checker, and was notoriously pernickety about other people’s articles. He knew exactly how to game the system.

This is the really impressive bit of Glass’ fakery, the lies that stood behind the lies. He had notes to back up everything. He had fake emails, fake faxes, fake voicemails, fake business cards, in the “Hack Heaven” case a fake hackers’ newsletter and fake Jukt Micronics website. He had fake diagrams of the seating arrangements at non-existent meetings between non-existent people. He would even – and this is depicted early on in the film – drop in deliberate mistakes for the fact-checkers to catch, for which he would apologise profusely, knowing that this would cover for much bigger porkies that would then be let through.

He was helped, too, that few people complained about being misrepresented in his articles. To some extent, that’s because many of the people in his articles didn’t exist. Even when they did – see his “Spring Breakdown” piece about young conservatives running amok at a political conference – it was easy to dismiss complaints on the grounds of “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Michael Kelly was a great editor for backing up his hacks, and Glass shamelessly abused that trust.

And, in the end, it did come down to trust. As Lane points out, the fact-checking process is not a fraud-checking process. It does assume that the journalist, however prone to factual errors, is basically honest. It isn’t sufficient by itself to deal with a very clever sociopath who knows exactly how to exploit the weaknesses of both the system and the human beings around him.

All this, of course, is in the wacky world of American journalism. It’s difficult to imagine something similar happening in Britain.

So, what of Stephen Glass? Well, he won’t work in journalism again. Some years ago he published a novel, The Fabulist, about a reporter called “Stephen Glass” with a penchant for making up stories. He’s also qualified as a lawyer, though he’s having trouble being admitted to the bar due to ethics considerations. But while I hope he does find another career, in journalism he’ll long be remembered as a cautionary tale.

Finally, there are a lot of young kids who have a crusading image of journalism based on watching All The President’s Men. That’s a great film to be sure, but as a corrective, any young person entering journalism should also watch Ace In The Hole and Shattered Glass. By way of keeping their feet on the ground.

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