March 27th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The PM, farmers, the FTA and the election

EDITORIAL: Telstra has lost its way

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Spending signals start of election campaign

ANALYSIS: Australia-US trade deal a monumental folly

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Lilies of the field / Speaking conspicuously

MURRAY RIVER: Science overturns need for big environmental flows

INDONESIAN ELECTIONS: Indonesia taking control of its own destiny

How alcohol leads to harder drugs (letter)

The Passion of the Christ (letter)

DOCUMENTATION: IVF - Playing against a stacked deck

MEDIA : Join the Fairfax Club

ASIA: Behind the India-Pakistan thaw

ECONOMICS: Eight centuries of wavy prices

BOOKS: JAMES BURNHAM, by Samuel Francis

FILM REVIEW: Shattered Glass

Books promotion page

Shattered Glass

News Weekly, March 27, 2004
The secret of success is sincerity. Fake that, and you've got it made.
- Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944), French playwright and cabinet minister

Tom Cruise's taste in film-making seems to improve even as his tabloid appeal shrinks. Not only did he star in, and subsidise, that underrated swashbuckler The Last Samurai; he also subsidised, but does not star - or even appear - in this chilling account of Stephen Glass's corruption, produced in Canada. (Hence the closing credits' profusion of French names.)

Who was Stephen Glass? He ranked, despite hot competition from Stalin's 1930s sycophant Walter Duranty, as the greatest fraud known to American journalism (until 2003, when even Glass's heroic mendacity yielded to Jayson Blair at The New York Times, who added to the profession of swindler a morbidly profitable race angle). The New Republic (TNR) printed 41 articles of Glass's ostensible reportage between 1995 and 1998. Of these, at least 27 later proved to be fiction. When the resultant expose emerged in May 1998, it looked set to finish off TNR entirely, and probably should have done so.

Clinton's antics

As the tale begins, it is the Lewinsky scandal's high summer, and TNR staff writers' median age is 26. Tyrannical editor-in-chief Marty Peretz (played by Ted Kotcheff) derives from the Stern Gang both his ideology and his manners. Managing editor Michael Kelly (played by Hank Azaria; the real Kelly perished, alas, in Iraq five years afterwards) is increasingly and publicly restive at Clinton's antics.

Peretz, a Clintonista to his very talons, dismisses Kelly from office - "the tone of the magazine [has] gotten too nasty" - and hires in Kelly's stead (to most staffers' disgust) the poker-faced, softly-spoken, computer-illiterate Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). With Lane - in his socially crippled fashion - presiding, young Glass (Hayden Christiansen) flourishes. Charming in a puppyish way, though as blatantly on the make as Stendhal's Julien Sorel, Glass keeps editorial conferences bubbling by his off-the-wall accounts of derring-do, which he duly writes up. One of his "reports" concerns Lewinsky-inspired prophylactics ("Moni-condoms"); in another, he poses as a psychiatrist who regales Kentucky talk-radio hearers with scientific arcana about compulsive biting (Mike Tyson had recently turned Evander Holyfield's right ear into an hors d'oeuvre).

His colleagues, especially female ones, love it all. Repeatedly he intersperses his sentences with such little-boy-lost gambits as "Are you mad at me?" The women love those too. And then he submits his ultimate masterpiece for TNR's pages: "Hack Heaven", an eyewitness account of a national computer-hackers' conference in Washington DC.

In "Hack Heaven" Glass describes an acne-faced Wunderkind, fresh from a triumphant protection racket at a software firm's expense, being mobbed by 200 screaming fellow cybernerds like a rock star and being pursued by Nevada cyberpolice.

Except that hi-tech maven Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn, resembling a somewhat overweight Michael J. Fox), over at Forbes' online subsidiary, has heard of no such Wunderkind, or conference or software firm.

The more Penenberg checks Glass's sources, the more suspicious he grows. In fact almost the entire story is a product of Glass's overheated novelistic imagination. One part alone withstands Penenberg's scrutiny: Glass's assertion that "there is a State in the Union called Nevada."

Thenceforward Glass's fate has all the inevitability of Oedipus Rex, give or take the occasional self-mutilation. Even Glass's perception of his imminent downfall cannot stop his sleazing, his whining ("I don't like the way you're talking to me!"), his threats to kill himself, or his lies. However will his in-house champions wake, with excruciating slowness, from their delusion of his probity? Find out at a cinema near you.

To any viewer who earns all or part of his living from magazine work, Shattered Glass, for all its wit, is downright frightening. What Glass did to TNR is what crims always do to enterprises that sacrifice self-preservation for an honour system.

Just as the arch-hacker whom Glass invented could scarcely believe the ease with which he inflicted his technological mayhem unchecked, so Glass could scarcely believe that TNR - "the in-flight magazine for Air Force One", as the industry joke has it - would fall, not once but 27 times, for his fantasies. Either no effective fact-checking mechanism existed, or if it did exist, TNR specifically waived it for Glass's submissions.

Conservatives and misplaced commas alike would turn Peretz into a veritable Captain Queeg. Yet "evidence" made from thin air offended nobody.

Most alarming of all is this realisation: had Glass spent a fraction more money on his scams, he would never have been detected. As it was, he cut corners. He obtained an el-cheapo business-card from a shopping-mall kiosk; he devised a "corporation" website by using his server's free storage capacity instead of spending $75 on his own dot-com address; and the phone number (belonging in reality to Glass's California-based brother) of this "corporation" had, implausibly enough, only one line.

Moreover, he skimped on his research, remaining unaware that the convention centre where the hackers allegedly caroused was closed on Sundays and lacked the room for even 100 revellers, let alone 200.

Jayson Blair's shenanigans proved, if we required proof, that America's mainstream print-media administrators learned nothing from the Glass Affair.

  • R. J. Stove

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