Stephen Glass’s Ceiling

When I teach Introduction to Journalism, I always show Shattered Glass, the 2003 movie about New Republic staff writer Stephen Glass who was discovered to have fabricated quite a number of stories–or parts of stories–over his short career. I don’t show it simply as a cautionary tale, but because the movie details so well the processes of story creation and fact-checking, processes that Glass was able to manipulate so masterfully. Until it all fell apart, that is.

Somewhere along the line, I bought a copy of Glass’s own fictionalized book about the scandal, The Fabulist. Until recently, I had never bothered to read much of it: I couldn’t get beyond the little comic set-pieces or the sterile stereotypes. You could see the talent that made Glass’s pieces in The New Republic popular, but also that this is a writer with all the depth and complexity of a clear pane of glass. Knowing the story, in other words, it is too easy to see right through him.

Yes, Glass’s name makes it too easy to joke, to play on it–which is exactly Glass’s own problem: he’s a master at just that sort of wordplay. He’s amusing in a facile sort of way and you want to root for him and his stories as a result. But, when you realize that he’s simply doing the same thing over and over again, and that the only point to it is ‘Look at me, I’m Stephen Glass,’ you begin to get tired of it.

This week, I finally sat down and read the whole of The Fabulist, finishing it this morning. It was a peculiar experience, something like watching the film of a train wreck. Not the wreck itself, but someone’s imagining of what we in the audience think a wreck should look like.

Glass doesn’t try to inform or explain, but to imagine his readership and how they must see Stephen Glass. He then plays on that (when he’s not sidetracked into his little comic sketches), completely sidestepping the greater topic that could have made this into a searing novel, the place of culpability in contemporary American society. Instead of a sweeping book, this one becomes small. At one point, he writes:

I was, and am, so sorry for how I hurt them. It pains me to even think about it. I apologize now: an insufficient apology, I know, to substitute for the one that should have come so long ago, and never did. I want to offer it even though I understand it will afford little comfort to the people I wrote about. (299)

This is someone, clearly, who has no real clue about the complexities of human interactions, who still believes that contrition can be sufficient–even while claiming to know that it is not.

Glass, now a lawyer, is trying to gain admittance to the California bar. He has not succeeded, so far, though it looks as though he finally will. I don’t see why anyone would object. Though he is myopic, focused only on himself, he still could probably be an effective defense attorney, turning his considerable skills in availing his clients of every possible avenue of defense.

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