By Beverly Joseph
When Craig invited me to write a review, I enthusiastically agreed. And then I began to quake; I haven’t written anything for publication since shortly after my college journalism years. Irony: the movie is about journalism.
“Shattered Glass” refers to the rapid rise and fall of Stephen Glass, The New Republic’s reporter who was lauded for three years until it was discovered that he had fabricated 27 of his 41 celebrated stories.
The movie’s opening scene finds Stephen wandering wide-eyed around a busy political memorabilia convention. His “voice over” leads us to believe that Stephen is practicing the good observation skills every good reporter needs: “I record what people do. I find out what moves them, what scares them. And I write that down. That way they’re the ones telling the story.”
Innocent enough, but notice the dynamic among the staff at TNR , who inadvertently become accomplices in the success of Stephen’s deliberate fantasies. There is a certain subculture in a newsroom (as I remember from my days on The Daily Athenaeum staff) that is a curious mix of camaraderie, competition, and cooperation. The crazy hours help nurture camaraderie, a meager supply of editorial positions foster competition, and the shared goal of getting it right/accurate/ true,/first necessitate cooperation. The movie makes sure the viewer understands that triple-checking the facts is a driving force at a respected publication. So how did these young hot-shot journalists, required to vigorously fact-check each other’s work, miss the unending stream of falsehoods that characterized Glass’ writing? Alas, it was because they found him so entertaining.
Thirty years prior, journalism curricula were just beginning to include ethics classes. One of the motivating issues was the early blurring of the difference between news and entertainment. Could anyone have foretold that in thirty short years, a very young reporter would invent news by catering to “what moves them, what scares them?” Irony #2.
Back to the opening scene. Stephen reflects that journalism is full of “showoffs, braggarts, jerks . . . always selling, always working the room . . . 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.” Irony #3: Stephen isn’t proclaiming modesty; he’s describing his strategy for taking fellow staffers’ eyes off fact-checking and focusing them on how likable he is.
There’s another scene that I hope is an accurate depiction of how things really happened when Stephen Glass was fired. Chuck Lane, then TNR editor, is back in the offices at night to announce to Glass that he must leave immediately. It has just hit him that Stephen wasn’t just sloppy in one article, and as Stephen leaves, Chuck goes to a wall displaying several years of the magazine’s monthly issues and begins pulling down the ones containing Stephen’s articles. He realizes that most of the articles were not verified and he stoops down with a tall stack of magazines in his arms. Stephen returns and begins to lie in order to gain Chuck’s sympathy. Chuck stands firm and Stephen finally leaves. I thought Chuck would leave the spaces in the display empty out of disdain for Stephen, but he begins to return the issues to their places. Very soon, it becomes clear that he has taken a step of courage to own up to the magazine’s culpability, to recognize the three years of deception as part of the publication’s history, and to instruct his staff accordingly. A bit of moral rectitude welcomed both then and now.