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Through a Glass Darkly, by Samuel Hughes

"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 for excellence."
   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 to it."
    -- From "Writing on the Wall," by Stephen Glass, in the March 24, 1997, New Republic.
Brad Yeo, Illustrator   You 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 DP.
   "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 so surprised."
   "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.

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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 10/28/98