Shattered Glass is the nonfiction story of Stephen Glass, a rising star writer for The New Republic in the late 1990s, who, it turns out, habitually fabricated his stories out of whole cloth.
I have considerable familiarity with The New Republic, though mostly from well before the time of these events. I was a subscriber for a decade or so, starting around 1980. It has been one of the most important and influential American journals of opinion for close to a century. It was consistently liberal for most of its history, then when it was bought by Martin Peretz-or really his rich wife, but he was put in charge-it gradually changed considerably. It became moderate to slightly liberal on average, but marked by various “shock” pieces from the far right, dropped in occasionally to, I guess, prove they were a bunch of mavericks who couldn’t be pigeonholed ideologically. And on Israel, which is Peretz’s pet issue, it took up a stance somewhere to the right of the Israeli far right, if such a thing is possible.
I was aware of the Glass scandal when it broke, but I didn’t delve into it more than superficially. And I had long since stopped reading the magazine, so I hadn’t read any of his articles.
One thing that really struck me in the movie-and it’s interesting that they chose to highlight it by mentioning it in a graphic very early-is that the average age of the staff of the magazine was 26. I would have never guessed anything remotely that low. I mean, maybe for some new publication about the Internet or pop culture or something like that, but The New Republic?
And that’s an important part of the dynamic in this movie. It really is like a bunch of college kids gossiping, flirting, goofing around, forming office politics factions, etc. It didn’t give me a lot of confidence in the state of journalism to find out one of the “biggies” is indistinguishable from a bunch of kids putting together a school paper. I think the movie almost had to include that graphic, otherwise viewers would have thought the casting was way off, like “Where are the grown up reporters?”
But as to the story itself, it’s mesmerizing at times, watching people’s perceptions of Glass (Hayden Christensen) change step by step-from no doubts about him, to small doubts about him they couldn’t put their finger on, to believing he got a little sloppy and made an occasional mistake or cut an occasional corner, to believing he got sucked into a practical joke by his sources and was fooled into writing a totally bogus story, to believing he himself wrote a totally bogus story as a one time thing because he panicked due to the pressure of deadlines and high expectations and such, to finally realizing he had been making his stories up all along.
What is remarkable, and somewhat comic to behold, is how Glass went for the “big lie.” He didn’t just take an occasional short cut by including some bogus claim that would be hard to check. He wrote whole stories where every individual quoted was a made up name, company names were invented, events such as whole conventions were created out of his imagination, specific bills before Congress were named and turned out to be non-existent, etc. Once someone thought to follow up one of his stories by making some phone calls and using search engines, it fell apart completely, because nothing whatsoever in it checked out.
I also appreciated the irony that his reporting style-or at least the reporting he was pretending to do-had a strong element of prankster-type trickery and undercover stuff to gain access and get people to say things he could then use to make them look foolish. His co-workers found him highly entertaining, as they loved being in on the joke. Too bad they weren’t.
Presumably, some of what we see in Glass in this movie is exaggerated and simplified to highlight certain traits of his, but if it’s even close to accurate, he’s quite the piece of work. He probably got away with it as long as he did, because-at least as the movie depicts him-he is utterly without conscience, so he has zero restraints on what he’ll do to keep the ruse going: sickeningly ingratiating toward his co-workers and superiors; actively taking part in the office politics, but probably purely pragmatically rather than because he cares about the substantive reasons people are taking sides; willing to lie about anything and everything; caring not the slightest about how his actions might affect others or about abstract notions of journalistic ethics, etc.
It’s not even clear he had nefarious motives for what he did. Granted, he makes certain claims and shows certain emotions that could be relevant in getting a read on his motives, but so many of those claims and emotions are shown to be feigned and strategic that you can’t help but assume that by now everything about him is. He seems too emotionally dead and machinelike to care about much of anything beyond pulling off a prank as an end in itself.
Is he just empty to his core? The movie doesn’t have the gore factor of watching a study of a serial killer, but there’s something similarly scarily inhuman about him.
The movie uses the device of interspersing clips of Glass giving a talk to his old journalism class with the main story. I found that clumsy and unnecessary. For one thing, for the first third or so of the movie it’s used frequently, but then they seemingly forget about it and you don’t see it again until near the end.
I think one reason it is done is so they can provide some background on the editing and fact-checking process and such at the magazine by having him talk about it to the class, but I’m sure they could have accomplished that some other way.
The device confused me, because I couldn’t make sense of the timing. He was relating events to the class that occurred right around the time he was exposed, yet the class was treating him like a big shot success rather than someone who had already destroyed his career, so I couldn’t figure out when this class visit was supposed to be taking place. But late in the movie there are hints he may have been fantasizing all these classroom scenes, which, to me, is all the more reason not to have bothered with this gimmick.
Also, though the depiction of Peretz is not a particularly favorable one, it would have been nice to see him portrayed as even more the intellectually dishonest bully and buffoon that he is.
But all-in-all, a good job of telling an intriguing story of journalistic malfeasance.