The need to get the best story first has always been an inherent part of the news business. But when a journalist crosses the line into the realm of fictional the whole integrity of the news business is thrown out the window.
This is in essence what happened to The New Republic magazine in 1998 when a writer of theirs named Stephen Glass fabricated a story about a computer hacker to such an extent that nothing in it was true including – sorry to say – the allegation that the hacker left his mark with an appealingly humorous alliterative caption: ‘THE BIG BAD BIONIC BOY HAS BEEN HERE BABY.’ (This of course has been overshadowed by the recent Jayson Blair/New York Times scandal, which shook out nearly identically but with much greater fanfare earlier this year.)
Shattered Glass – directed and written by Billy Ray from a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger – is a fine Showtime-like film about a journalist’s last good lie and the way in which he got caught.
Hayden Christiansen (yes, the young Darth Vader) portrays the talented neophyte writer Stephen Glass as a likable young man who has a lot of wit and imagination. Each day during the newsroom meetings he tells funny tales that are inspiring and often too good to be true. But he spins the stories so well that his editors cannot resist them. And it is probably for this reason that the fact checking for his stories became lax. In the film, as in real life, Glass’s lies were not caught by the magazine’s editors but by Forbes.com; an online magazine.
Steve Zahn plays Adam Penenberg, a tech writer for Forbes.com who took an interest in Glass’s story because it was about a hacker. As he prepares to do a follow-up story, he finds that nothing in the story is true. Soon he is hot on the trail looking for and debunking facts much like Woodward and Bernstein followed Watergate.
Shattered Glass is basically split into two parts. The first half is about Stephen and his appealing lies; the second half is about editor Charles Lane (played by Peter Sarsgaard) and his investigation of the veracity of the story along with his attempt to get a grasp on the newsroom, raise the awareness of the writers, and save the magazine.
In this way the heart of the movie is Glass and his fabrications, but the soul is Lane, a recently promoted editor who suspected Glass early on. Sarsgaard is perfect as the tough by-the-book editor who has a traditional approach to the newsroom. Because of this he isn’t – at first – much liked by the other writers. When he starts questioning Stephen everyone thinks it is because Stephen was a favorite of the previous editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), who got fired.
The motivation for Glass’s lies are not made clear but director/writer Ray suggests that Glass was simply trying to make more money so that he would be accepted by his parents – who wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer. And he was at least smart enough to have figured out that elaborating the facts of a story would give him a better chance to be noticed by other editors, which is exactly what happened.
Shattered Glass also doesn’t go into Glass’s other fabulous lies. It turned out that he had fabricated 27 of 41 articles in two years of writing for the magazine. The film does however touch a little upon his ability to manipulate the system by orchestrating fake phone numbers, web sites, and contact names so that fact checkers would believe what he wrote.
Overall, Shattered Glass is about the dueling clash between the penchant that journalists have to stretch the truth for the sake of fame with that of the plain and simple honesty of journalism. In this way the film’s subject is the darker half of journalism never approached by All the President’s Men. In that film journalists were the beacon of free expression who stood up to trusted leaders and held them accountable for their actions.
Shattered Glass shows us that sometimes it is the journalists who cannot be trusted. The question the film posits is: who will hold them accountable? The answer lays partly in the making if this film.
The DVD includes a 60 Minutes interview with Glass (the real Glass), and the film is backed by a commentary track from director Billy Ray and the real Chuck Lane (played by Sarsgaard in the film). Incidentally, the original Forbes.com article by Adam Penenberg is here.