A decade on, Stephen Glass scandal raises questions about journalism

Posted on May 17, 2008

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The World Today – Friday, 16 May , 2008 12:33:00
Reporter: Reged Ahmad

ELEANOR HALL: The US political magazine, The New Republic, spent more than 80 years building a reputation for quality journalism.But one man managed to damage that legacy and the reputations of a series of other journals when he sold them fake stories.

Now a decade after the Stephen Glass scandal, but the people who uncovered it are warning that it could happen again, as Reged Ahmad reports.

REGED AHMAD: He was a 25-year-old journalist and his impressive record of exclusive stories made Stephen Glass the toast of Washington.

Stephen Glass worked for the politically influential magazine, The New Republic, but everyone wanted a piece of him. He was considered gifted by many of his colleagues and wrote stories on the quirky side of American life for publications including Rolling Stone, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

But all that crumbled in May 1998 when the New Republic published one of his biggest scoops, Hack Heaven.

(Extract from Hack Heaven)

EXCERPT (voiceover): Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates is throwing a tantrum. “I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Man comic book number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!

(End of extract)

REGED AHMAD: The trouble was his colourful article about a teenage hacker extorting money from a large software company was fake.

An investigation found Stephen Glass had faked some or all of 27 out of 41 articles over his two and half years with the magazine.

Charles Lane was the editor of The New Republic at the time and fired Stephen Glass once he knew the extent of the journalist’s treachery.

CHARLES LANE: It is pretty embarrassing. First of all the articles were fact checked and the fact checkers didn’t realise that Steve was deceiving them deliberately with forged materials.

The environment inside the magazines was such, and I think this is normal, that people trusted one another and didn’t imagine that somebody would be doing all of this and finally I think there was a certain, you know, the more he did, the easier it became to get away with it.

REGED AHMAD: Stephen Glass’ deception was so breathtaking, his story was turned into a movie starring some of Hollywood’s well-known actors.

(Excerpt from movie, Shattered Glass)

(Sound of phone ringing)

ACTOR: A few other people we can’t seem to locate. Julie Farthwork, Frank Juliet and Ian Restil’s agent, Joe Hiert.

ACTOR 2: You know this is not right Chuck. Ok, I feel really attacked and you are my editor, you are supposed to support me and you are taking their word against mine? You are supposed to support me.

ACTOR 3: By the way, who is your basis for writing that Jukt was a big time software company?

ACTOR 2: I didn’t. That was added by the copy desk.

ACTOR 3: And was the hackers conference when you first met the Jukt executives.

ACTOR 2: No, that part of the article is misleading.

(End of excerpt)

REGED AHMAD: Adam Penenberg was the journalist with Forbes On-Line who started asking questions about Stephen Glass’ article.

ADAM PENENBERG: He admitted that it was the fear that he wouldn’t be able to come up with that great story again.

REGED AHMAD: By the time Stephen Glass’ deception had been unravelled, it had become the most sustained case of journalism fraud the industry had seen, but it wasn’t the last.

Since then the American media has been hit with one scandal after another. Months after Stephen Glass was exposed, award-winning columnist Patricia Smith was sacked by the Boston Globe for faking quotes and characters.

In 2003 Jayson Blair was caught faking and plagiarising stories for the New York Times. And a year later, Pulitzer prize finalist, Jack Kelley, was sacked by USA Today for making up large parts of many stories.

So is there any way of stopping journalism fraud? Adam Penenberg says quality media is under pressure to publish what sells.

ADAM PENENBERG: I think that what happens in journalism today and in the late 90s is that there is this essence of hype. How can we hype a story to attract more readers? How can we sex it up?

REGED AHMAD: Former editor of the New Republic, Charles Lane says there is no doubt that Stephen Glass’ articles boosted sales, but he thinks it is the fraudster rather than the publisher who is to blame.

CHARLES LANE: There appears to be a certain kind of person who keeps doing this regardless of, you know, the evidence that you will eventually get caught, exposed and denounced.

And that just tells me that no matter what safeguards we put into place, eventually we’re vulnerable to the malformations of human nature.

REGED AHMAD: As for Stephen Glass, he published a book based on his experiences called The Fabulist and performs with the alternative comedy troupe, Un-Cabaret.

In an ironic twist, its comedians get laughs by telling truthful stories about their lives.

ELEANOR HALL: Reged Ahmad reporting.

http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/

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