Making it up AND getting away with it

I once heard about a journalist who was fired for making up stories, and when I read the full story of Stephen Glass, which also became the movie Shattered Glass, I found it an incredible tale.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about journalists losing their jobs for making up stories, and the saga of Glass was at the forefront in the late ‘90’s. He wrote for some of the biggest publications around, but much of his work was completely invented, and funny enough, it would never pass as decent fiction either.

Shattered Glass was based on an article in Vanity Fair written by Buzz Bissinger, who also wrote the book Friday Night Lights, and it reminded me of a real life Usual Suspects, except Glass wasn’t that good of a liar. He sure did get away with a lot though, and he made up websites, e-mails, and had his brother pretend to be someone in his stories to make his “reporting” seem legit. In other words, he went to great lengths to cover his ass, so much  so that when his house of cards came crashing down, it seemed incredible how much work went into his con games.

After Glass got caught there was also James Frey with A Million Little Pieces, and what’s disturbing about his bullsh*t is I’ve known recovering addicts who adopted what he said in the book about how meetings and doing the steps are an addiction in itself, which is a dangerous message to send to anyone in recovery.

When Janet Cooke made up a story in its entirety at the Washington Post that won a Pulitzer, she was forced to give it back and was exiled from journalism for life. Glass and Frey? Six and seven figure book deals, which were clearly labeled fiction.

The Washington Post urged their reporters to come up with “holy sh*t” stories in the wake of Watergate, and often editors can’t understand that every story isn’t going to blow up the world with its revelations. This is where warning bells should have gone off in hindsight with Glass in that his stories almost always seemed too good to be true, and like a scam job listing on Craig’s List, if it’s too good to be true, it usually is.

Glass remained silent for years, then finally granted an interview with 60 Minutes, where he did an unconvincing job of trying to be contrite for his actions. Towards the end of the story, he told Steve Kroft that although he apologized to no one in the years since he got caught, this would be the first in a series of apologizes.

Then Kroft mentioned some would be skeptical that he was doing this to coincide with the release of his book, and you could see Glass react with the passive aggressive anger he was trying to sit on, a great little revealing moment. Those future series of apologies also never happened either, which is no surprise, but what would that have fixed? Things like this sets journalism back years, and hurts writers everywhere, especially where so many are distrustful of the media in the first place.

Still, it made a fascinating, sad, and complex story, especially with his motives still not completely clear, perhaps not even to himself. In creating holy sh*t, or holy bullsh*t, the stories of Glass and Frey ultimately became holy sh*t stories themselves.