Buzz Bissinger   Vanity Fair   September 1998   Old Liars, young liar
"Trouble was, he made things up sources, quotes, whole stories in a breathtaking web of deception that emerged as the most sustained fraud in modern journalism." Buzz Bissinger

The topic of lying in the media is of central importance on the Ukrainian Archive because of the frequency with which the media uses the opportunity of reporting on the Slavic world in general, and on Ukraine in particular, to instead calumniate them.  Three prominent examples are Jerzy Kosinski's career as Jewish-Holocaust fabulist and Grand Calumniator of Poland, TIME magazine's wallowing girl photograph of 22Feb93, and Morley Safer's 60 Minutes story The Ugly Face of Freedom, broadcast over the CBS network on 23Oct94.

From such examples as the above, however, it is difficult to estimate the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation in the media.  It may be the case that distortion and calumniation are limited to a few topics such as the Slavic world or Ukraine, and that otherwise the media are responsible, professional, and accurate.

The value of studying the case of Stephen Glass, however, is that it suggests otherwise that perhaps the media operate under next to no oversight, that they are rarely held accountable, and that only egregious lying over a protracted interval eventually risks discovery and exposure.  Had Stephen Glass been just a little less of a liar, had he more often tempered his lies, more often redirected them from the powerful to the powerless, he would today not only still be working as a reporter, but winning prizes.  Thus, the example of Stephen Glass serves to demonstrate the viability of the hypothesis that misinformation and disinformation in the media is widespread, and that the three examples mentioned above, and the many more documented throughout the Ukrainian Archive, may not be exceptional deviations at all, but rather the tip of an iceberg in an industry which is largely unregulated, which is largely lacking internal mechanisms of quality control, which is responsive not to truth, but to the dictates of ruling forces.

Another question which may be asked is whether Stephen Glass is the product of some sub-culture which condones or encourages lying, or which even offers training in lying.

The following indented quotes, then, are from Buzz Bissinger, Shattered Glass, Vanity Fair, September, 1998, pp. 176-190.  I now present to you Stephen Glass largely on the possibility that our understanding of him will deepen our understanding of other record-breaking, media-manipulating liars that have been featured on the Ukrainian Archive, ones such as Yaakov Bleich, Morley Safer, Neal Sher, Elie Wiesel, and Simon Wiesenthal.

One precondition of exceptional lying may be an intellectual mediocrity which puts a low ceiling on the success that can be achieved through licit means.  Thus, Stephen Glass, although performing well in high school, began to perform poorly in University, and when he began work as a reporter, was discovered to not know how to write:

Glass began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1990 on a pre-medical curriculum.  According to various accounts, he held his own at the beginning.  But then his grades nose-dived.  He apparently flunked one course and barely passed another, suggesting that he had simply lost interest in being on a pre-med track, or had done poorly on purpose to shut the door to any future career in medicine.  Glass ultimately majored in anthropology.  He reportedly did well in this area of study, but given his inconsistent performance in pre-med courses, his overall grade-point average at Penn was hardly distinguished slightly less than a B.

"His shit wasn't always as together as everyone thought it was," said Matthew Klein, who roomed with Glass at Penn when he was a senior and Glass a junior.  There were indicators to Klein that Glass was not doing particularly well academically, but Glass never acknowledged it.  "He always said he was doing fine, doing fine," said Klein.  (pp. 185-186)

Those familiar with his early work said he struggled with his writing.  His original drafts were rough, the prose clunky and imprecise.  (p. 186)

A second precondition of exceptional lying may be growing up in a subculture which encourages lying, or merely condones it, or at least does not actively work to suppress it.  The Bissinger article offers us next to no information on this topic, except for the following brief statement:

Harvard educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot spent a good deal of time at Highland Park High School researching her 1983 book, The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture.  She was impressed with the school's stunning academic programs but noted that values such as character and morality were sometimes little more than brushstrokes against the relentlessness of achievement.  (p. 185)

The first steps on the path to high achievement in lying will, of course, be timid and cautious, but when the lack of repercussions is discovered, will become bolder:

At first the made-up parts were relatively small.  Fictional details were melded with mostly factual stories.  Quotes and vignettes were constructed to add the edge Kelly seemed to adore.  But in the March 31, 1997, issue of The New Republic, Glass raised the stakes with a report about the Conservative Political Action Conference.  Eight young men, Glass claimed, men with names such as Jason and Michael, were drinking beer and smoking pot.  They went looking for "the ugliest and loneliest" woman they could find, lured her to their hotel room, and sexually humiliated her.  The piece, almost entirely an invention, was spoken of with reverence.  Subsequent to it, Glass's work began to appear in George, Rolling Stone, and Harper's.

But challenges to Glass's veracity followed.  David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, called Glass "quite a fiction writer" and noted that the description of the Omni Shoreham room littered with empty bottles from the mini-bar had a problem.  There were no mini-bars in any of the Omni's rooms.  (p. 189)

The young liar next discovers, to his amazement, that the exposure, scandal, and punishment that he feared do not materialize.  Questions concerning the veracity of his work can simply be brushed aside.  The chief consequence of his lying is dizzying success:

At 25, Stephen Glass was the most sought-after young reporter in the nation's capital, producing knockout articles for magazines ranging from The New Republic to Rolling Stone.  Trouble was, he made things up sources, quotes, whole stories in a breathtaking web of deception that emerged as the most sustained fraud in modern journalism.  (p. 176)

Because this, after all, was Stephen Glass, the compelling wunderkind who had seeped inside the skins of editors not only at The New Republic but also at Harper's, George, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones.  This was the Stephen Glass who had so many different writing contracts that his income this year might well have reached $150,000 (including his $45,000 New Republic salary).  This was the Stephen Glass whose stories had attracted the attention not just of Random House his agent was trying to score a book deal but of several screenwriters.  (p. 180)

There arrives a time when the young liar begins to feel himself invincible.  He finds that no matter how big his lie, he is not exposed, and he extrapolates to imagine that he leads a charmed life and that his good fortune will continue forever.  In view of his perceived impunity, he sees no need to moderate lying, and so he escalates it:

Stephen Glass rode the fast curve of instant ordainment that encircles the celebrity age of the 90s; his reputation in the incestuous world of Washington magazine journalism exploded so exponentially after a few of his better-than-true stories that he could basically write anything and get away with it, regardless of the fact that his reporting almost always uncovered the near incredible and was laden with shoddy sourcing.  His reports described events which occurred at nebulous locations, and included quotes from idiosyncratic characters (with no last names mentioned) whose language suggested the street poetry of Kerouac and the psychological acuity of Freud.  He had an odd, prurient eye for a department-store Santa with an erection and evangelists who liked getting naked in the woods.  And nobody called his bluff.  What finally brought Stephen Glass down was himself.

He kept upping the risk, enlarging the dimensions of his performance, going beyond his production of fake notes, a fake Web site, a fake business card, and memos by pulling his own brother into his fading act for a guest appearance.  Clearly, he would have done anything to save himself.

"He wanted desperately to save his ass at the expense of anything," said Chuck Lane.  "He would have destroyed the magazine."

The saga of Stephen Glass is wrenching, shameful, and sad.  His actions are both destructive and self-destructive, and if there is an explanation for them, his family has chosen not to offer it.  Repeated attempts to interview Stephen were rebuffed, and all his father, Jeffrey Glass, said in a phone conversation was this: "There's a lot unsaid.  You can do whatever you want to do.  There's no comment."  (p. 182)

But the result of such a course, at least in some perhaps rare cases, is discovery and discredit:

Nothing in Charles Lane's 15 years of journalism, not the bitter blood of Latin America, nor war in Bosnia, nor the difficult early days of his editorship of the fractious New Republic, could compare with this surreal episode.  On the second Friday in May in the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in the Maryland suburb of Bethesda, near Washington, nothing less than the most sustained fraud in the history of modern journalism was unraveling.

No one in Lane's experience, no one, had affected him in the eerie manner of Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old associate editor at The New Republic and a white-hot rising star in Washington journalism.  It wasn't just the relentlessness of the young reporter.  Or the utter conviction with which Glass had presented work that Lane now feared was completely fabricated.  It was the ingenuity of the con, the daring with which Glass had concocted his attention-getting creations, the subtle ease with which even now, as he attempted to clear himself, the strangely gifted kid created an impromptu illusion using makeshift details he had spied in the lobby just seconds earlier a chair, a cocktail table, smoke from a cigarette.  (p. 176)

The New Republic, after an investigation involving a substantial portion of its editorial staff, would ultimately acknowledge fabrications in 27 of the 41 bylined pieces that Glass had written for the magazine in the two-and-a-half-year period between December 1995 and May 1998.  In Manhattan, John F. Kennedy Jr., editor of George, would write a personal letter to Vernon Jordan apologizing for Glass's conjuring up two sources who had made juicy and emphatic remarks about the sexual proclivities of the presidential adviser and his boss.  At Harper's, Glass would be dismissed from his contract after a story he had written about phone psychics, which contained 13 first-name sources, could not be verified.  (p. 180)

Post-mortems of how so much lying had succeeded in entering the media paint an image of a cunning malefactor eluding stringent quality-control mechanisms.  However, perhaps it is the case that such post-mortems serve to delude the public into imagining that Stephen Glass is a rare aberration, and not the tip of an iceberg.  Perhaps the reality is that right from the beginning any intelligent and critical superior could have seen had he wanted to that Stephen Glass was a simple and palpable fraud, and not the cunning genius depicted below:

For those two and a half years, the Stephen Glass show played to a captivated audience; then the curtain abruptly fell.  He got away with his mind games because of the remarkable industry he applied to the production of the false backup materials which he methodically used to deceive legions of editors and fact checkers.  Glass created fake letterheads, memos, faxes, and phone numbers; he presented fake handwritten notes, fake typed notes from imaginary events written with intentional misspellings, fake diagrams of who sat where at meetings that never transpired, fake voice mails from fake sources.  He even inserted fake mistakes into his fake stories so fact checkers would catch them and feel as if they were doing their jobs.  He wasn't, obviously, too lazy to report.  He apparently wanted to present something better, more colorful and provocative, than mere truth offered.  (p. 180)