I get most of my news from the Internet, one of the greatest sources of unfiltered information. Though online news is commonly perceived to have lower standards than print, it is authors and editors, regardless of the medium, that are responsible for a report's veracity. In all my writing and blogging, I try to exhibit the standards I learned in my own background in the publishing industry, so it's disturbing to be reminded that what we find on newsstands offers no inherent credibility, as demonstrated in the film Shattered Glass.
This 2003 film is a dramatic recreation of the scandal that rocked The New Republic — "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One". Despite having such potent influence, the magazine was staffed by a young crew with a median age of only 26. At 24, Stephen Glass was its youngest, yet he was also seemingly TNR's most talented reporter, with a knack for colorful stories, interviews, and first-hand experiences. But when a reporter for Forbes Online tries to follow up on one of Glass' stories, he can't confirm any of the facts… beginning the revelation that Glass had for years been fabricating his articles in part or whole.
There's a hole in the fact-checking system. A big one. The facts in most pieces can be checked against some type of source material. If an article's on, say, ethanol subsidies, you could check for discrepancies against the Congressional Record, trade publications, LexisNexis, and footage from C-SPAN. But on other pieces, the only source material available are the notes provided by the reporter himself.
As disturbing as this fact is and how easily Glass exploited it, the movie is nonetheless a rather simple one. If you read the news in 1998, the back of the DVD package, or this blog, you already know more of the plot than any of the film's characters; watching it is waiting for them to play catch-up. The value comes from watching the struggles between and within the characters as they come to grips with this difficult truth.
Glass himself is played by Hayden Christensen, who initially portrays the protagonist as a likable character with altruistic intentions. "There are so many show-offs in journalism," he narrates. "So many braggarts and jerks … always trying to make themselves look hotter than they actually are. The good news is, reporters like that make it easy to distinguish yourself. If you're even a little bit humble, a little self-effacing or solicitous, you stand out." But as Glass' yarns begin to unweave, he becomes not so much humble as pathetic. Any confrontation begins with him defensively asking, "Are you mad at me?", and we get the sense that this is not an act but the sincere worry of a scared boy fearing rejection and failure. Though the audience may see this transition as a ploy intended to provoke sympathy and avert blame, I think it is, in fact, a genuine portrayal of Glass' character and flaws.
Years later, after Glass had published a novel based on his experiences, he said of his motivation in doing so: "I wanted them to think I was a good journalist, a good person. I wanted them to love the story so they would love me." Given this desperate need for acceptance, I found the part of Glass to be perfectly cast. For those charting Hayden Christensen's progress in playing troubled teenagers, Shattered Glass comes after Life as a House (2001) and Star Wars Episode II (2002) but before Episode III (2005). Whether or not the film calls for such angst, it's a role that suits Christensen well. (Ironically, when I briefly met this actor earlier this year, he stood out for being quiet and humble. I can only hope his reasons for being so are not the same as Glass'!)
Peter Sarsgaard plays Christensen's editor, Chuck Lane, a newly-appointed editor-in-chief who at first comes across as inept and disliked. But as the film progresses, it becomes more about this character and the crucible he faces. Lane inherited more than he expected when he assumed TNR's helm, and if Shattered Glass is any indication, he weathered it well. What the film doesn't detail is that his predecessor, Michael Kelly (played by Hank Azaria), was editor for only a year when he was fired, and Lane himself met a similar fate for not having caught Glass' indiscretions earlier. It's poetic that a magazine of politics would have its own, no?
Shattered Glass is a fairly accurate and disturbing historical recounting. Beyond that, what you take away from it is up to you. Is such fabrication a regular practice of journalism, and Glass was simply the first to be caught? Should he be praised for revealing a hole in the system and teaching Americans to be cynical of the press? Have editors learned to distrust its staff, preventing such debacles from recurring?
These are all good questions — and if we've learned anything from this experience, it's that we must come to our own conclusions.