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Through a Glass Dardly (continued)

   "I feel very badly for him," adds Kaplan, who had tried to hire Glass on more than one occasion. "I hate to see somebody go through that kind of breakdown. My first thought is still, 'What a horrible waste.' As angry as I am, and as betrayed as I feel, my primary response is still one of great sympathy. That such a talented guy is going to fall by the wayside."
   Not everyone responds with such compassion. For Bissinger, the more he dug into the story, the angrier he became.
   "Whatever the reason, it suggests the complete absence of any moral center whatsoever," he says with palpable disdain. "In the end, Stephen screwed everybody -- his closest friends, people who helped him, people who liked him. He dishonored Penn, he dishonored The Daily Pennsylvanian, he dishonored The New Republic. He did a tremendous amount of damage to journalism. But maybe in a way that's good, because I think he tore the lid off a lot of the problems that are in the journalism profession. This whole blurring of what's real and what's imagined."
   On the fourth floor of Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel, eight young men sit facing each other on the edge of a pair of beds. They are all 20 or 21 and are enrolled in Midwestern colleges ... The minibar is open and empty little bottles of booze are scattered on the carpet. On the bed, a Gideon Bible, used earlier in the night to resolve an argument, is open to Exodus ... The young men pass around a joint, counterclockwise. "I'm telling you, I'm telling you, we don't know what we're doing," says Jason, a brown-haired freckled boy from Iowa, between puffs. "We've got no mission. We've got no direction. Conservatives -- we're like a guy who has to pee lost in the desert, searching for a tree." The other seven young men nod and mumble in agreement ...
   This is the face of young conservativism in 1997: pissed off and pissed: dejected, depressed, drunk and dumb ...
    -- From "Spring Breakdown," by Stephen Glass, in the March 31, 1997, New Republic.
   Dr. Alan Charles Kors, professor of history, recalls reading that piece with some misgivings. A conservative libertarian himself, he had been sufficiently impressed by Glass during his days as editor of the DP to recommend him for his first job at the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, even though the Heritage Foundation is a conservative institution and Glass was, on many issues, a liberal. But Kors put his doubts aside. "I said to myself, 'Yeah, but it's Stephen who wrote it, so it must have happened that way.'"
   It didn't.
   After the article appeared, an old DP colleague, Gabriele Marcotti, C'95, called Glass in Washington to talk about it. "One of the things that struck me at the time," says Marcotti, "was how he got very excited about it. He regaled me with all these anecdotes, some of which were in the story, some of which hadn't appeared in the piece. Looking back, if you're going to make something up and write it and get away with it -- at that point, unless you believed your own bullshit, you'd probably let it lie. You wouldn't go and try to impress somebody again with more anecdotes about it. I think that was an obvious sign that he was under a lot of stress. He needed help at that point, because it wasn't just a case of 'I can't cut it, so I'll stretch the truth.' It was a case of alternate reality."
     Johnnie is the leader of his 'posse,' a club of several dozen homeless people that has its own intricate rules and traditions. All members of the club identify their allegiance by donning an American Heart Association button and a Zenith Data Systems painters' cap ... Club members enjoy citing their hero, Kenny Rogers, as best expressing the philosophy of surviving on the streets. Twice that day June and Johnnie sang "The Gambler" in chorus ...
    -- From "A Day on the Streets," by Stephen Glass, in the June 6, 1991, Summer Pennsylvanian.
   Since no one has proven otherwise, it's always possible that this story is completely accurate, right down to the first-person descriptions of homeless people smoking crack and picking up prostitutes and talking about murders they committed. There's no question that there really was a West Philadelphia homeless man named Johnnie who used to hassle Glass for money -- "like Steve owed him," recalls Matt Selman, C'93 -- and whose photo accompanied the story. And Glass's roommate that year, Joon Chong, C'94, remembers him being away from the room for a day or two while he was working on the article. But the notion of a homeless "club" with matching buttons and caps seems prima facie absurd. Kenny Rogers seems a rather unlikely hero for African-American homeless men. And the very idea of the neurotic, khaki-clad Glass hanging out in a West Philly crackhouse struck some of his colleagues as preposterous -- though at the time, they kept their mouths shut. After all, says one, he was a person that "strange things happened to."
   Later, Gabe Marcotti, who had done some work in outreach programs and once scored some crack for a story himself, talked with Glass about his "day on the streets." A number of things about it simply did not ring true. "It struck me as really, really unlikely," he says. "He was the most white-bread, preppy person you can imagine."
   But while Marcotti didn't really believe Glass's story, he admits that he wanted to. "You sort of got the sense when you spoke to him that everything he told you, you wanted to believe him. When I heard the news about what happened to him, just talking to friends, a lot of us came to the conclusion that he had so many other things going for him, and so many people looked up to him, that you always wanted to believe him -- and were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt."
    The DP can be a very demanding master: reporters regularly log 30 to 40 hours a week there, while top editors often put in 50 to 60 -- a grueling load for a full-time student. In the words of Matt Klein, C'93, who preceded Glass as executive editor, it "weeds out weak-minded people." For all its self-importance (these are college kids, after all), it has long been regarded as one of the best college newspapers in the country, with the awards to back it up.
   It also inspires fierce loyalty -- you have to be deeply devoted, and maybe a little nuts, to work that hard for free. Staffers talk about the "DP culture" that separates the truly devoted, fast-track insiders from those on staff whose entire lives do not revolve around the paper. Insiders tend to come from very similar, affluent backgrounds; anyone in a work-study program, for example, is unlikely to have the time to get deeply involved. "The DP, like any newspaper, doesn't reflect the student body; it reflects the people who make it up," says Marcotti. Glass, by all accounts, was an insider from the get-go who loved the paper and was one of its most enthusiastic cheerleaders.
   Though not known as a great writer, he was considered a very good reporter: quick on his feet, energetic and resourceful, able to cover complex issues, ask the right questions, find the right people to talk to -- and chat them up. Some of the subjects of his stories and editorial coverage remember him as fair and pleasant to work with; others still seethe about what they saw as deeply biased coverage.
   Matt Klein says that while Glass was a "solid" writer and reporter, his rise through the ranks was based to some extent on a "cult of personality." Glass, he says, "had worked the hardest, put in the most hours, and was a good leader. He was someone people respected, trusted, and liked."
   Sabrina Rubin, who says she and the rest of the editorial board "adored" him, puts it another way: "There are reporters who get ahead because they're great schmoozers, and I think Steve was definitely one of them." When he became the paper's executive editor, the editorial board hailed him as a "man of principle," and in her Philadelphia magazine piece, Rubin describes how Glass threw a righteous fit when she and a colleague concocted a funny and obviously made-up travel story for 34th Street -- going so far as to call an emergency session of the DP's Alumni Association board to apprise them of the transgression. (Rubin also acknowledges that she felt "terrible" about writing a fairly dishy article about someone she had once liked and admired. "Actually, Eliot [Kaplan] had to force me to do it," she says. "I didn't want to do it at all.")
   "The DP at times has been a confluence of very talented people and very interesting events," says former editorial-page editor Ken Baer, C'94, now a speechwriter for U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. "And Steve was an editor at one of those moments: 1993 was a big year for Penn. [Former President] Sheldon Hackney was leaving; the provost was leaving; there was the Water Buffalo case, the theft of the newspapers -- and all of that came together at this one massive year. I feel fortunate that we had a very able staff working on it, and I feel fortunate that Steve Glass was the editor and was leading us at that time. I don't feel that anything that happens [now] should reflect on what happened then. No one should ever look back and say, 'What was going on there?'"

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