A few months ago, Harper's published an article by Stephen Glass, then an associate editor at The New Republic, detailing his experiences as a telephone psychic. The 7,400-word piece was alternately amusing and poignant, explaining the tricks of the trade and describing the sad suckers who fall for them.
With its perfectly recalled dialogue, colorful characters, and funny situations, the article read like fiction. And if Glass had made the whole thing up, I wondered, how would anyone know?
Now that Glass has been fired by The New Republic for fabricating a story, that question must be on the minds of the editors at Harper's. If they're smart, they will claim that they knowingly published a piece of satire and imply that anyone who took it literally belongs in the same category as the dupes who believe in mind reading and precognition.
It's too late for TNR to take that tack. "Hack Heaven," Glass's article about young computer hackers who end up working for the companies they once targeted, appeared in the magazine's May 18 issue. Shortly afterward, Adam Penenberg, an editor at the online magazine Forbes Digital Tool, began looking into the story's details.
So far as Penenberg could tell after extensive checking, the individuals, organizations, and situations described in Glass's article did not exist. Penenberg alerted TNR Editor Charles Lane, who investigated the matter and promptly fired Glass, saying, "I'm now satisfied in my own mind that the entire article was completely made up."
The episode raised an obvious question: Was this the first time Glass had fabricated a story, or just the first time he got caught? A perusal of his TNR articles from the last year or so turns up more than a few with the earmarks of fiction.
Among other improbable gatherings, Glass has covered a secret meeting of the Clinton-hating "Commission to Restore the Presidency to Greatness"; a "National Memorabilia Convention" where Clinton loyalists vied with producers of novelty items inspired by the Monica Lewinsky scandal; and a reunion of "clutches," former White House interns who were obsessed with getting close to the president.
Glass has also reported on "Back to Eden," a group of "naked evangelicals"; "a New York company called HDT" that, for $25,000 a year, "will dump you in some far-off wilderness and keep 'completely unobtrusive' watch to make sure you don't get too injured" while you live close to nature; and the dueling weather theories of "Climate Lookout, a liberal environmental group," and "Truth and Science, a Christian organization skeptical of global warming."
Even in his less fishy articles, Glass's anecdotes and quotes often seem "too good to be true," as his former TNR colleague Jacob Weisberg puts it. But if Glass did punch up his reality-based stories with elements of fiction, he is hardly unique in that respect.
While it's a rare journalist who is reckless enough to fabricate stories out of whole cloth, the manufacture of quotations is routine. As anyone who has dealt much with the press can testify, it is not safe to assume that words appearing within quotation marks were actually uttered by the person to whom they are attributed.
Often, the resemblance between the "quote" and what was said is slight. But if the reporter knows what he's doing, the source will not complain. When I interned at a leading business magazine during college, one of my tasks was to call people and have them approve quotations that had been written for them, based on their much less pithy comments in interviews.
The use of composite characters and compressed or rearranged narratives is also fairly common (especially in books), though not as casually accepted. Is it such a leap to invent anecdotes, so long as they can be said to reflect reality?
The truth is that people want journalism to read like fiction; it's much more interesting that way. The duller a story, the more likely it is to be accurate (a rule of thumb to keep in mind when reviewing Glass's work). The challenge of making facts compelling and entertaining encourages exaggeration and invention.
If Glass's creative writing leads people to be more skeptical about what they read, even in prestigious publications, he will have done a public service. Perhaps he should say that was his intent all along.