"I have to get this off my chest,"
wrote Stephen Glass, C'94. "I have a confession to make. During
my tenure as Executive Editor of this newspaper, I have allowed a grave
omission to occur."
A tantalizing lead for his farewell "Enemy of the
People" column in The Daily Pennsylvanian. Five years later,
the reader is intrigued: What awful sin was this now-infamous alumnus
going to cough up? Could it be that -- even back then -- he had spun quotes
and characters from whole cloth and was about to admit it?
Well, not exactly. The "grave omission" was
that he hadn't publicly praised his own staff, the scores of students
who worked under him, "laboring to all hours in the night in their
idealistic quest for truth, justice, and the American way." A little
fulsome, maybe -- the DP was rather full of itself that year, especially
after stolen newspapers and Water Buffaloes catapulted it onto the national
stage -- but a nice gesture. No wonder his staff adored him.
As that farewell column continued, Glass began spinning
an image that is somewhat more remarkable in hindsight than it was at
the time: that of a looking glass, a mirror of the University itself,
which the DP's staffers "slave in this office for hours on
end to construct." And it was that mirror's reflection, he wrote,
"that allows members of the University to be self-critical and strive
Then there was this: "This mirror is not and should
not be 'nice.' Rather, this reflection is more useful when the glass is
pure -- emphasizing each wrinkle and each scar. Only by seeing our true
self will we ever improve."
"It is a quiet, brutal war," says a Hard at
the University of Pennsylvania, who asked that his name not be used since
many of his colleagues are Sensors. "For [Sensors, successories]
is a church, and these posters are the idols. They have to convert you
-- From "Writing on the Wall,"
by Stephen Glass, in the March 24, 1997, New Republic.
might not have known about the bitter nationwide struggle between the
Sensors -- fanatical followers of uplifting messages known as "successories"
-- and the Hards, described as non-believing "academics and irritated
employees." And even though it was being fought out right here at
Penn, among other places, you were in good company. Outside of Stephen
Glass's mind, it seems, most of those warriors didn't exist. "There's
no way of verifying whether that's an honest quote or not," says
Tyce Palmaffy, an editorial assistant at The New Republic,
about the Hard line from Penn. "It's anonymous. But some of
the material was definitely made up, and that one is indicative of his
process of deceit."
By now, a good portion of the Western world has heard
about Glass, the shooting star who was found to have pulled off one of
the most amazing journalistic con jobs in history. He was unmasked in
May, confronted with incontrovertible evidence that he had been fabricating
quotes and people and organizations in his stories, submitting notes from
nonexistent interviews to fact-checkers, even constructing a faux Web
site to throw off the reporters and editors who were closing in on him.
At age 25, he was fired from his job as associate editor of The New
Republic, and his freelance contracts with George, Rolling Stone,
and Harper's were cancelled. Today, readers hoping to find
the fabricated stories at The New Republic's Web site are
met with an apology and an explanation of why those stories -- more than
two dozen of them -- are no longer there. ("Mr. Glass's work was
dishonest in any medium -- paper or electronic -- and here in cyberspace,
just as in the magazine, we regret its publication.") Now there are
Web sites with titles like A Tissue of Lies: the Stephen Glass Index
cataloguing his inventions and the media commentary -- of which there
has been truckloads, including lengthy features in recent issues of Vanity
Fair and Philadelphia magazine by DP alums Buzz Bissinger,
C'76, and Sabrina Rubin, C'94.
So what happened? What could have transformed the likeable,
talented, high-minded young editor who was constantly asking people "Are
you mad at me?" into a spinner of mendacious and increasingly whacked-out
yarns about churches whose members believed that George Bush was the reincarnation
of Christ and shopping-mall Santas whose fear of child-molestation suits
led to a Union of Concerned Santas and Easter Bunnies? Not to mention
less amusing brands of plagiarism and invention, one of which prompted
George editor John F. Kennedy, Jr., to send a letter to Vernon
Jordan, apologizing for a Glass-spun quote about Jordan's sexual preferences.
Theories abound (see sidebar),
many of them plausible, some of them fascinating, all of them insufficient.
In the end, no one really knows what happened except Glass himself, now
a reclusive law student at Georgetown University, where he recently qualified
for the Law Review, but for "personal reasons" declined to participate.
And so far, he has maintained a deafening silence.
"Stephen I don't think is going to be able to talk
to you, for a couple of reasons," said his Washington attorney, Gerson
Zweifach. "One is that it's much too soon for him to feel comfortable
speaking publicly about this. The other is that there are some pending
legal matters that make it much more complicated for him to discuss the
events of the last year." (Glass is being sued by the anti-drug group
DARE over one of his New Republic pieces.)
It's a sad story; a tragedy, really. Having led the
DP through turbulent waters with high-profile panache and gone
on to become a rising star in the high-octane world of Washington journalism,
he was seen as a success story and even a role model; his fall stunned
his former colleagues and friends at the DP and throughout the
University. For most, the natural inclination to conduct caustic post-mortems
was tempered by a real sadness and desire to defend him -- and to assure
outsiders that what happened recently had no bearing on his work at the
"If you talk to anyone who was there at the same
time as him, I don't think you'll find anyone at the paper who questioned
his ethics or integrity at all," says Charlie Ornstein, C'96,
who worked under Glass as a reporter and later became executive editor
himself. "To the contrary, among the people who he trained and supervised,
there was a real sense of admiration and a real sense that he was trying
to instill values. And I think that was part of the reason everyone is
"When this thing first broke," says Philadelphia
magazine editor Eliot Kaplan, C'78, "I was hoping that
he would hold a press conference and say, 'I've been secretly doing a
book on how easy it is to fool the mainstream press, and now my book will
be out next year.' But that didn't happen.
November/December Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1998 The
Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 10/28/98