Before Jayson Blair, the infamous fabulist of The New York Times, there was Stephen Glass, who made up stories for The New Republic.
Like Blair, Glass was caught, dismissed in disgrace. Now Glass’ downfall is on display in Billy Ray’s directorial debut, “Shattered Glass.”
Glass calls it “my own personal horror film.”
“It was extremely painful and difficult to watch. There were large chunks of it, or at least significant chunks of it, that I looked at the ground, I didn’t look at the screen.... That being said, it’s a good movie. Some of the performances are unbelievable,” Glass says, singling out Steve Zahn’s performance as the online reporter whose digging led to his exposure in 1998.
“It was a tour through the worst parts of my life, the parts of my life I’m the most ashamed of — things I wish I had never done, and things I feel a great deal of remorse for.”
Hayden Christensen — far removed from his Anakin Skywalker role — plays Glass with a puppy-dog disingenuousness (“Are you mad at me?” he keeps pre-emptively asking). The movie has received mostly rave reviews, with the Christian Science Monitor calling it “the best movie about American journalism since ’All the President’s Men.”’
“The one thing that the movie doesn’t get is, I don’t think there’s ever an expression of why or what it felt like to be the person doing this,” Glass says in a telephone interview. “I think that’s the area where the movie sort of is incomplete.”
Glass, 31, didn’t profit from or cooperate in making the movie, and Ray concedes “I’m sure if he and I would have been speaking regularly, I would have gotten manipulated into showing that inner turmoil. But I don’t think that would have made it a better movie.”
At a recent screening, the film’s writer-director urged audience members to ask themselves whether they thought Glass was a sociopath, a pathological liar, or just a guy who made some bad choices.
Ray doesn’t suggest an answer himself, and his movie doesn’t offer an explanation.
“I think you could spend a long time with Stephen and come away just more confused. It also by the way just doesn’t interest me that much,” says Ray, whose screenplay credits include “Hart’s War” and “Volcano.” “I’m interested in how people relate to the truth vs. personality. Why Stephen did what he did is almost immaterial to that story.”
Resisting temptation Ray made the movie based on his belief that Woodward and Bernstein — The Washington Post staffers whose Watergate reporting led to President Nixon’s resignation — were heroes and their legacy must be maintained by the generations that follow.
“I think it’s tougher to maintain now because the temptations that are dangled in front of reporters now to become stars are greater than the temptations used to be. There’re just so many different ways to get yourself on television now. But I think the lure of fame is very real. And I don’t think that’s a good thing,” he says.
Chuck Lane, The New Republic editor who finally caught Glass, says when you go back and read Glass’ stories with the knowledge that they’re fake, it’s interesting to see why they were believed.
“One of the parts of the answer that I’ve settled on is that so many of his stories revolve around stereotypes,” says Lane, now a reporter with The Washington Post.
“They fit into the pre-existing grooves that are already etched into everybody’s heads, things we think or are predisposed to believe are true. So he’s got stories about young conservatives who turn out to be total hypocrites about morality; he’s got stories about department store Santa Clauses who turn out to be pedophiles; and he’s got a big story about a pseudo-scientific exploration about why African-Americans are too lazy to drive taxicabs but immigrants will.”
Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Lane, also blames gullibility as much or more than the fabricator’s mendacity.
“I think what made all of this possible for him has more to do with the public than it does him. It’s more interesting to think about why people believe people like that than why they lie. Why is our culture only interested in the hyperbolic, the entertaining, in journalism?” he wonders, noting that Fox News Channel gets more buzz than PBS’ “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” “I put the moral judgment more on us, the consumers, rather than ... the perpetrators.”
Trying to write 'perfect stories'
Through therapy, Glass says, he’s come to understand the root of his falsehoods.
“There’s a deep feeling of self-loathing and feeling that I was not good enough in any respect. I wasn’t a good enough journalist, or a good enough friend, or a good enough boyfriend, or a good enough son, or a good enough brother,” he says. “And so I believe I lied to deceive people in thinking better of me.”
That made him want to come up with “perfect stories.”
“I wanted stories that, frankly, don’t exist that often. I wanted stories that weren’t just, like, good stories or great stories; we’re talking about, like, home-run, grand-slam stories. And so I made things up constantly to have the perfect quote or the A-plus anecdote. And then from each of those lies I had to lie another step and another step and another step, and lie to guard all those steps as well. I kept lying at every stage. That’s how it became lies upon lies upon lies.”
As part of his effort to reclaim his life he’s been writing letters of apology to those he feels he wronged.
Lane has received one of those missives, but he concedes he finds the expressions of remorse “hard to square,” because, among other reasons, “The Fabulist” — Glass’ autobiographical roman a clef — depicts various people he’s now apologizing to in “a very, very negative way, and quite inaccurately and meanly.”
So he doesn’t buy it?
“I just think there’s still a lot about Steve that doesn’t add up to me.”
Can he believe anything Glass says?
“I think: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Still, Lane thinks redemption is possible for Glass. You can’t “just write ’em out of the human race,” he says.
Whether true or not — and Glass himself admits it’s fair to wonder — Glass says he’s trying to rebuild his life, even while he sounds continually remorseful about the lies.
“I feel what I did was terrible and horrible. And it’s something I’m deeply ashamed of. And I recognize that in many ways it has defined my life. And so I think when people consider me they have to consider that — and it’s fair for them to consider that. I hope that over the course of my life I’ll do other things that will make the picture of who I am more complicated.”
He has “a wonderful personal life” and enjoys the emotional support of his family, girlfriend, a dog, four cats, and various friends.
He’s also at work on a second novel. A law school graduate, he has passed the New York bar exam’s written test.
But he still must pass the character and fitness committee review.
“My application will obviously require a great deal of consideration.”