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Through a Glass Darkly (continued)

   
   Buzz Bissinger wonders how deeply Glass really believed in his free-speech rhetoric. "It seems to me that those are values that, if you believe in them, you believe in them your whole life. You don't turn them on; you don't turn them off. Certainly, later in his life, Stephen had no problem turning off the values of truth. So you have to wonder how much did he really, really believe in it when he was in college -- or to what degree did he think, 'Hey, this is a way to get some fame for myself'? You know, a lot of people around the country had heard of him. George Will was writing about him, and Nat Hentoff was writing about him. I mean, a lot of big names were writing about him. And I'm sure it made him feel good.
   "I don't want to insult anyone who writes for a college newspaper," Bissinger adds, "but a college newspaper is not a reflection of anything. And I'm saying that as someone who worked at The Daily Pennsylvanian, and it was a wonderful sort of seminal experience -- but it's not the same."
   Which leads to the inevitable question of how Glass, with such limited real-world experience as a journalist under his belt, got to such a lofty position by the age of 24.
   "I've spent 20 years as a journalist," says Bissinger, "and I've spent those years in places that were not very sexy, like Norfolk, Virginia or St. Paul, Minnesota. But they taught me a hell of a lot about journalism. Regardless of how good or how bad a reporter or journalist Stephen was, how did he get to this level so quickly? When I was 24 or 25 years old, I was covering cops. And I'm glad that I did it, because Stephen never knew what it was like for someone to get in his face and say, 'You know what, that story was wrong, that story was inaccurate.' When you work at a relatively small newspaper, if you print one fact wrong, they are all over you, and they are all over your editor. It's an incredibly unpleasant experience, and for no other reason, you never want to go through it again."
    It was "Hack Heaven" -- a story about a bratty teenage computer hacker who was blackmailing software companies that appeared in the May 18, 1998, New Republic -- which led to Glass's unmasking as a writer of fiction posing as a journalist. (And not a very good fiction-writer, either; the dialogue in that piece is ludicrous.) The former fact-checker was exposed by an online journalist from Forbes Digital Tool named Adam Penenberg, who couldn't figure out why he had never heard of "Jukt Micronics" and why Jukt's Web site (which featured a "rebuttal" of "Hack Heaven") was so blatantly amateurish.
   "I am sure Glass would have been caught eventually," says Penenberg. "Usually when Glass faked a piece, he would use first names, or rely on anonymous sources and fabricated notes to fool editors and fact-checkers. But with 'Hack Heaven,' perhaps we were seeing the beginning of the end. He actually provided first and last names, a government agency and a law, a convention he wrote had occurred in Bethesda, Md. He was becoming careless. Perhaps he wanted to get caught."
   
   
   
   
Postscript: Last month, the DP's Alumni Association board met in Steinberg Hall-Dietrich Hall before its annual Steven A. Marquez Journalism Conference, put on by alumni to help teach and inspire current members of the DP staff. (It was named after the late DP and Philadelphia Daily News reporter who graduated from the College in 1979). One of the items on the agenda concerned board member Stephen Glass. Members who miss three board meetings are history anyway, but although Glass had already missed the last two and was unlikely to attend any more, the matter had to be addressed. "There was no discussion," said board president Ira Apfel, C'90, in a terse e-mail, "because there was nothing to discuss. I simply said that Stephen Glass has now missed three board meetings, board by-laws state that any board member who misses three consecutive meetings in a row is automatically removed from the board, next agenda item."
   And so, with no fanfare, a chapter that had begun so brilliantly some eight years before came to a close. It was hard to believe that only last year, one of the Marquez Conference panel discussions focused on editorial judgment -- and that one of the five panelists was Stephen Glass.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 10/28/98