April 1, 2020

Journalistic Fake-Out Before Blair

In spring 1999, filmmaker Billy Ray asked Charles Lane to retrace one of the strangest treks in modern journalism.

In May 1998, Lane — then editor of The New Republic — had made the same trip with Stephen Glass, a young rising star at the magazine. At 25, the Jewish Glass was drawing attention with juicy stories such as the "First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ." But Lane had begun to worry that the writer’s outrageously colorful pieces were too good to be true.

The day before, a reporter from Forbes online had phoned about irregularities in Glass’ May 1998 story, "Hack Heaven," set at a computer hackers’ convention. Forbes’ Adam Penenberg and his editor had interrogated Glass about the fishy materials he had provided to back up the story, including a fake-looking Web site. The solicitous, self-effacing Glass had finally said he may have been duped by his sources.

But Lane had a different suspicion. On that day in 1998, he insisted the writer drive him from The New Republic’s Washington, D.C., office to the Bethesda, Md., site of the hackers’ conference. Glass drove slowly and appeared to be improvising as he led Lane to a horseshoe-shaped lobby in a nondescript office building, an unlikely setting for a convention. Lane questioned building personnel — and learned the facility had been closed the day of the alleged event.

An ensuing investigation revealed that Glass had partially or totally made up at least 27 out of his 41 New Republic pieces, including "Hack Heaven"; he had fooled fact-checkers with bogus items such as faux notes and voicemails. Five years before Jayson Blair, he emerged as one of the most extravagant frauds in journalism history.

No wonder Ray took extra care while turning the debacle into a film, "Shattered Glass," a more intimate riff on the journalism thriller epitomized by "All the President’s Men." Although the taut drama is officially based on a Vanity Fair expose, Ray conducted his own interviews, culled dialogue from transcripts and even asked Lane to recreate the Bethesda trip. "I insisted that we drive at the same speed, in the same lane, park where they parked and walk where they walked," he said.

He also studied materials provided by Penenberg, whose meticulous fact-checking first exposed Glass.

"Billy approached this project as a journalist would," Penenberg said.

The filmmaker — an avid newspaper reader from age 8 — understands something about his subject. Both he and Glass grew up in affluent, heavily-Jewish suburbs (Ray in Encino; Glass in Highland Park, Ill.) where parents expected children to succeed.

"My family talked a lot about how Jews have always used education as their ticket," the director said. "The mindset is that you have a responsibility to yourself, to your family and to the Jewish community at large to achieve, to bring pride and certainly not to fail."

Glass, now 31, attended the University of Pennsylvania; Ray, 39 graduated from Birmingham High and spent a less-than-stellar year at Northwestern’s prestigious journalism program.

"[One teacher] kept saying to me, ‘You are never going to be a journalist,’ because she felt my writing was too undisciplined and flowery," he said.

Ray switched to screenwriting, enrolled in UCLA’s film school and went on to write movies such as "Hart’s War." But he jumped at the chance to return to the world of journalism when producers offered him "Glass," his directorial debut, in 1999.

Of why he was fascinated by his subject, he said, "I know what it’s like to want to get that pat on the head and told you’re the smartest kid in the third grade. I know that feeling … that just keeps driving you, not so much to succeed, but to display the badge of success."

Despite Ray’s reportorial technique, the film veers in some ways from real-life. There are composite characters, and "Star Wars’" Hayden Christensen plays Glass, prompting one columnist to note, "Only in Hollywood can Jewish nebbishes get played by WASP hotties."

But Lane, who is Jewish, feels the onscreen Christensen eerily resembles Glass.

"Once I actually did a double-take outside the sound stage," he said. Lane also feels the film "is faithful to the spirit of the events."

If the drama doesn’t explore why Glass fabricated, credit Ray’s journalistic approach. Glass declined to be interviewed for the film, according to the director. "And I wasn’t going to put anything in the movie I couldn’t prove," he said.

"Shattered Glass" opens today in Los Angeles.