journalistsare flagellants by nature. They prefer to apply the
lash to outsiders, of course, but when one of their own violates the most
basic tenets of the faith, they engage in a sort of ritual purification,
full of thundering denunciations and psychoanalytic wailing. (Lest this
sound overly flip, the flagellation is undoubtedly preferable to the alternative,
which is to keep quiet and save the scourging for outside sinners.) This
year, there has been a lot of bloodletting, as not only Stephen Glass
but two writers at the Boston Globe were discovered to have fabricated
stories. Glass's fall, however, was far and away the most dramatic --
and the most ripe for exegesis.
Enough scribes have already attempted to divine the
sources of his unravelling that further attempts are unnecessary. But
since some of the theories offered are both plausible and fascinating,
it's worth listing the more salient ones -- with counterarguments:
Glass had wildly overextended himself -- not
only was he on staff at The New Republic and was free-lancing for
George, Rolling Stone, and Harpers; he was
also an evening student at Georgetown Law School. So why didn't he
cut out the free-lancing until he was out of law school, or take a leave
of absence from The New Republic?
He was under enormous pressure to succeed --
his parents had wanted him to become a doctor, and didn't believe he could
make a real living at journalism. So are lots of people, especially
those who have worked at the DP.
He had a gift and a compulsion for mind games
-- at Highland Park High School in suburban Chicago, he had participated
in a theatrical program known as "Adventures of the Mind," designed
to encourage fast, inventive thinking. So -- what about the other Adventurers?
It's unlikely that they all took the lessons of that program so to heart.
He became overly enamored of Literary Journalism
-- and when he couldn't find the perfect character or quote or anecdote
for his work, he simply made them up. Most ink-stained wretches try
to write the most literate and liveliest story they can, and while they
sometimes make mistakes of fact and judgment, they don't take that to
mean they have carte blanche to invent.
The current journalistic climate in America is so
brutally competitive that only those who consistently dazzle and whose
work sizzles with attitude and edge can really be successful. It
can still be done honestly, and not every good magazine has an attitude
addiction. But it's an interesting point. Dan Schiller, ASC'76, Gr'78,
professor of communication at the University of California-San Diego and
author of Objectivity and the News, questions why "the market-driven
system of journalism itself escapes censure when individual journalists
are the major targets of blame." Though Schiller argues that today's
market-driven system is not the only one possible, he also says that it
"goes without saying that any attempt to propose reforms that might
challenge the ability of media owners to configure news any way they please
is taken as an absolutely unacceptable infringement of press freedom itself."
Glass was a manipulative, cold-blooded liar all along,
or he became one. Most people who knew him in the DPdays
scoff at the former; nobody really knows about the latter.
"There are two basic lines of thought"
among Glass's former colleagues, says former 34th Street editor
Matt Selman, C'93, now a writer for The Simpsons. "Either
he's evil, and he hid it, or he was kind of insane. He couldn't control
it, like it was this crazy pathology. Some people think he was very Machiavellian
about it. Some think his psyche was such that he just lost control. When
you get right down to it, it's all kind of bullshit, a lot of just talking
and talking and talking."
"I firmly believe that he is not evil," says
Ken Baer, C'94. "He's a good person and for whatever reason
he did something really wrong. I hope he figures out why he did this and
"I think a lot of people are still waiting for
Steve to talk and explain what he did and what happened," says Peter
Spiegel, C'92. "That's when we'll really know the insight
behind the fabrications."
Back to page one of Through a
November/December Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 10/28/98