Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Shattered Glass" and the Present of Journalism

One of my favorite, absolute favorite cable movies (movies that you tune into while its on cable and you get totally sucked in, no matter what part of movie you tune into) is "Shattered Glass," the story about Stephen Glass and his serial lies in journalism.  If you haven't seen the movie, or know the story, read this article by Adam L. Penenberg, the guy who broke the story.  If you don't want to read the article (but you should totally do), here's the short, short version: Stephen Glass was a journalist wunderkind who, in his early 20's, wrote articles for the New Republic and other major newspapers (Rolling Stone, George, etc), and in the guise of journalism, wrote complete fiction. Almost all of his articles were completely fiction.  And it was Penenberg who discovered the whole thing while writing for Forbes.com. 

I bring up this sordid history because in the aftermath of his journalistic oblivion, Stephen Glass, who was going to law school while writing all these articles, finished law school, took the Bar exam in New York and California, passed it, and as of yesterday, was denied entry to the California Bar by the California Supreme Court due to journalism history.  

Whether or not the Court's decision was justified, the whole Glass affair was the beginning of some interesting trends in politics and journalism that are still in effect today.  Here was a respected inside-the-beltway journalist who wasn't outed as a fraud by the so-called paragons of journalism, but was taken apart, bit by bit, by writer on the internet.  Not only that, but as Penenberg's article (you have to read the article) indicates, he crowd-sourced his research into Stephen Glass, using colleagues and interns, all working together.

That's amazing to me because virtually every internet investigation is done essentially the same way - one person says, "we need to research this, and I need help" and people who have a few minutes of time on their hands, step in and research. TalkingPointsMemo.com, VoiceofSanDiego.org, and a fair number of websites that do investigative journalism all use the same model of research as Penenberg. In that model, someone like Glass didn't stand a chance.

This story is also amazing to me because it showed how rotten DC journalism had become.  When he collected all the information, Penenberg presented it to Charles Lane and the New Republic who, rather than crediting him for bring the information to the fore, tried to stab Penenberg in the back by leaking the story to Howard Kurtz (who has found his place as an awful journalist at Fox). Kurtz' article didn't even credit Forbes.com or Penenberg.  He was the outsider, after all.  

Moreover, it now appears that some 42 of Glass' articles were completely or partially fictional, and no one caught him at it until Penenberg because Glass' stories played off of cliches, stereotypes and prejudices.  The hacker in "Hack Heaven" (the article that sparked Penenberg's investigation) is a 16 year old kid who wants a Miata, Young Republicans in another one of his stories were nasty to women and minorities, etc.  

Similarly, Judy Miller at the New York Times wrote article after article claiming that Saddam Hussein had biological/chemical/nuclear weapons and was planning to use them on the U.S. - literally parroting what the Bush Administration told her, and no one called her out for it. Instead, it was liberal bloggers who took her stories apart piece by piece. The same could be said for Dan Rather and the Bush draft-dodging story.

So, after almost 20 years, I think the Glass saga remains as compelling as ever, and the movie is ridiculously good.

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