Not long before he was unmasked as something less than an honest journalist, 25-year-old New Republic associate editor Stephen Glass was pitching colleagues on a hoax of talk-show host Jerry Springer. He scripted an elaborate Springer-worthy melodrama–complete with a bisexual love triangle, an attempted murder by rat poisoning and an emotional show-ending marriage proposal–and convinced New Republic writer Hanna Rosin and her husband, Slate columnist David Plotz, to join him in an effort to perform the gag on The Jerry Springer Show .
Mr. Glass’ plan was cut short on May 9, when he was fired from The New Republic for fabricating elements of at least three stories he wrote for the magazine. Under a program staff members have nicknamed “Operation Broken Glass,” the young writer’s pieces are being fact-checked anew by his editors, who fear his con may be much more far-reaching. “Our sense is that there’s a lot more,” said New Republic editor Charles Lane.
In light of the revelations, everything Mr. Glass wrote or said to colleagues is being re-examined for clues about the motives of Stephen Glass. Something as mundane as the Jerry Springer gag becomes emblematic; it was either a flash of Glassian creativity or else it was evidence of a calculated fascination with deception and chicanery. Mr. Glass’ colleagues are hashing it out.
“I’m not suggesting there is nothing to the allegations of fiction writing,” said Michael Kelly, former editor of The New Republic who now writes for The National Journal . “But I think, in fairness to him, you have to say there is a great deal to it that is manifestly true and that does reflect exceptional talent.”
“There is a great sadness among those of us who trusted him and thought he was in the same business we’re in,” said William Powers, another former New Republic writer working at The National Journal . “Steve inspired trust in all of us.”
As Mr. Glass’ colleagues sort through their competing explanations, most agree on this much: The Glass affair has less to do with issues of lax fact checking or professional pressures on young writers than on the identity of Mr. Glass. “It’s about self,” said Mr. Kelly.
Mr. Glass grew up outside Chicago in Highland Park, Ill., and went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania. It was there, writing for The Daily Pennsylvanian , that he first drew attention to himself with a piece called “A Day on the Streets,” which detailed a day in the life of a group of local homeless men. The story bears many of the traits of Mr. Glass’ later New Republic pieces: It purports to show the reader a remote cultural underworld whose members have formed a club with its own bizarre “rules and traditions,” as he put it. Mr. Glass experiences impeccable luck as a reporter–he’s there as the homeless men buy and smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes. And as with so many of the characters in Mr. Glass’ later New Republic pieces, the men are identified by first name only; their existence is essentially unverifiable.
Mr. Glass was hired after graduation by Adam Meyerson, editor of the staunchly conservative Heritage Foundation journal Policy Review . “He was from a mainstream newspaper and seemed to have a record of distinction and political courage on campus,” Mr. Meyerson said. “He came very highly recommended.” Mr. Glass worked at Policy Review for a year, doing office work and writing occasionally. During that time, he fell in with a group of young Washington conservatives, whom he would prod with his strong libertarian views. Colleagues say Mr. Glass was adamantly pro-choice, against seat belt laws and, in the name of free trade, opposed the regulation of land mines.
In the summer of 1995, Mr. Glass was hired by then- New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan as an editorial assistant and joined a small but intensely competitive intern class. Mr. Glass, who is reedy and sports wire-rimmed glasses and Gap-style clothing, soon earned the affection of his colleagues with his animated style and self-deprecating sense of humor. Associates say he was pleasantly nerdy–one colleague recalled that Mr. Glass was unfamiliar with the song “Light My Fire.” But he had a normal social life for a young Washingtonian, plying the local bars after work with the other New Republic kids. He even entertained occasionally, throwing parties at his Dupont Circle apartment. They were notable for their meticulously prepared hors d’oeuvres and the way he alphabetized his beer–brands beginning in A through M in one cooler, and N through Z in another. Though engaging, Mr. Glass seemed deeply insecure, colleagues now say. He disbelieved praise and was known to ask friends repeatedly, “Are you mad at me?”
“Steve had an insatiable need to please,” said a friend. “His worst fear was that the woman who answered the phone at the magazine was mad at him because he didn’t say hi to her on the way in.”
Mr. Glass managed a few bylines under Mr. Sullivan–notably a piece critical of dairy subsidies–but he languished at his assistant’s gig until May 1996, when Mr. Sullivan left and was replaced by Michael Kelly. Mr. Kelly, staff members say, quickly asserted himself as a “writer’s editor,” expressing confidence in his young reporters and helping them hone their ideas into workable pieces, and he soon took a liking to Mr. Glass. “Stephen Glass was someone for whom I always had a great deal of respect and affection,” Mr. Kelly said. “He was one of the people at the magazine who was greatly depended on.”
When Mr. Kelly arrived at The New Republic , it was reeling from two plagiarism incidents involving one of its writers, Ruth Shalit. So Mr. Kelly took it upon himself to implement a fact-checking system based on The New Yorker ‘s, where he’d written as a columnist. He tapped Mr. Glass to head it, and staff members say the aspiring reporter quickly established himself as a tireless fact-checker. “Steve was always coming to [Mr. Kelly] in the role of fact-checker, [saying] ‘Gosh, Mike, I don’t know if I want to work with this writer. His stuff is difficult to fact check,'” said one staff member.
Soon, Mr. Glass penned his breakthrough piece–an August 1996 story called “Taxis and the Meaning of Work.” The story combined serious discussion of a cultural issue (the dissipation of the American work ethic) with a moment of pure gonzo journalism: The young Mr. Glass and a cabby he identifies only as “Imran” are robbed at knifepoint by a passenger. The piece won praises from Mr. Kelly and New Republic owner Martin Peretz. When Mr. Glass was asked about the mugging, “He didn’t seem traumatized in the slightest,” a friend said.
Mr. Glass continued to fact-check and hit his stride as a writer, churning out a remarkable amount of copy, including some contrarian “impact” pieces–an evisceration of the popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, for instance–and plenty of stories with the familiar Glass tropes. He had the good fortune to be present when a group of drunken, pot-smoking conservatives engaged in an orgy at a Washington conference; found a “Democratic staffer” who had invented a contraption called a “Newt-o-meter,” which tallied Newt Gingrich’s ethics penalties; took a job as a “slave” intern at Mount Vernon; uncovered a group of Clinton-haters called the Commission to Restore the Presidency to Greatness; and, in March 1998, teamed up with colleague Jonathan Chait for a memorable piece about the public’s adoration of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Mr. Chait wrote about complex economic issues while Mr. Glass provided the color–i.e. bond traders at a mysterious investment house known as “TRS” who’d erected a shrine to Mr. Greenspan. Around the office, Mr. Glass became known as “a guy who has a magic knack for having amazing things happen to him,” said a colleague.
“Mike would say, ‘Go out and do a story on the church of George Bush,’ and Steve actually purported to find a real church of Bush,” said one former colleague, recalling Mr. Glass’ discovery of something called the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ. “He was giving people what they wanted.”
The fantastic tales sailed through the magazine’s fact-checking department. In fact, according to one New Republic staff member, “Steve was sort of held out to be a dream to fact-check.” He provided copious notes and letters, business cards, e-mail addresses–much of which is now believed to have been fabricated–for his subjects, at least those who operated above the radar.
Even as Mr. Glass came through with his incredible tales, his colleagues and indeed the editors at any number of magazines were transfixed. “Everyone now and then had a moment where they thought, ‘Could this be?'” said William Powers. “If you knew him and saw how hard he worked and how smart he was … it was easy to have that thought just for a second.”
The magazine, however, heard from people whose trust the young writer hadn’t inspired. In letters to the editor, various subjects from Mr. Glass’ pieces complained of “inaccuracy-drenched” and “fairy-tale” stories. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, whose minions had been implicated in Mr. Glass’ Republican drug orgy story, complained that the young writer had proven to be “quite a fiction writer.” At the time, Mr. Kelly stood by his writer. “The nature of the magazine is such that attacks are routine,” he said. Mr. Glass’ high-profile pieces soon caught the attention of other magazine editors and literary agents, who showered him with offers. He received assignments from Rolling Stone , George and Harper’s . Colleagues say Mr. Glass seemed unable to turn down assignments, and he was seen less and less frequently by friends. Then in fall 1997, colleagues say, Mr. Glass made a puzzling move; he enrolled at Georgetown University Law School, telling friends that he was succumbing to pressure from his parents, who looked askance at a career in journalism. “My reaction was, How insane,” said a friend.
After beginning night school, colleagues say, Mr. Glass began to show up bleary and unshaven in the New Republic office, and soon became too busy to return phone calls. Indeed, several of his friends say they have had little contact with him in recent months. But Mr. Glass continued to churn out copy. He profiled Vernon Jordan for George , blasted U.S. News & World Report ‘s college ranking system for Rolling Stone , and went undercover, he said, as a telephone psychic for Harper’s magazine.
By now, Mr. Glass had become emboldened. He included last names in stories his New Republic colleagues now consider fabricated. However, Mr. Glass’ decision to fabricate the presumably traceable name of a corporation called Jukt Micronics in his story “Hack Heaven” would ultimately lead to his downfall.
The story, concerning one Ian Restil, a 15-year-old who hacked his way into Jukt Micronics’ computer system, came to the attention of Adam Penenberg, an editor at Forbes Digital Tool , who initially called Mr. Glass to get young Ian’s phone number. When Mr. Glass didn’t return the call, Mr. Penenberg attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate Jukt. When he was finally convinced that Jukt didn’t exist, he put in a call into Charles Lane.
“As soon as I got that phone call from the guy from Forbes on Thursday [May 7],” Mr. Lane said, “I got Steve in here and I gave him a very, shall we say, unblinking cross-examination.” On May 8, Mr. Lane agreed to a conference call between Forbes editors and Mr. Glass because, he said, “I wanted to see the demeanor evidence.” Mr. Glass didn’t fare well on the stand, Mr. Lane said. So, he told his writer, “We’re going to Bethesda.”
The two men hopped in Mr. Glass’ Honda and drove to Bethesda, Md., to find the building where Mr. Glass claimed the meeting between Jukt and Ian Restil had taken place on a previous Sunday. Mr. Glass found it, but when Mr. Lane questioned a building engineer and a security guard, both men said the building was closed on Sundays. The pathetic denouement took place as Mr. Glass was driving his editor back to The New Republic ‘s offices; Mr. Lane suggested he might check the building’s surveillance videos. Mr. Glass folded, Mr. Lane said, admitting that he hadn’t attended the conference after all. He began to sob. At a stoplight, the editor and his writer got out of the car and exchanged seats. Mr. Lane drove the rest of the way to the office.
There was still one catch–Mr. Lane had received phone messages from a “George Simms” from Jukt Micronics; the return phone number had a Palo Alto, Calif., area code. That evening, senior editor Margaret Talbot mentioned casually that Mr. Glass had a brother in Palo Alto. “Then it dawned on me,” Mr. Lane said.
The next morning, May 9, Mr. Lane went to the office, where he found Mr. Glass. “I confronted him about the possibility that his brother was Jukt Micronics,” Mr. Lane said. Mr. Glass at first denied the charge, but eventually “‘fessed up to that,” Mr. Lane said. Before leaving for Chicago to visit his parents, Mr. Glass admitted to “embellishing” a story about a “National Memorabilia Convention” and the story about the rabid anti-Clinton group. Mr. Lane fired Mr. Glass that afternoon and has had no contact with him since.
Mr. Glass was also cut loose by George and Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine has spiked a Glass story. Only Rolling Stone is reserving judgment. Sources at some of the magazines told Off the Record that they’ve established that Mr. Glass had fabricated business cards, letters and e-mail addresses of his purported sources.
The impact of the Glass affair will likely be felt by the magazines that have published him for some time. A stream of subjects wounded by his pieces have come forth, demanding some form of recompense. David Keene, the head of the American Conservative Union, has intimated that he might sue, as has Glass profile subject Larry Klayman, an attorney who heads the right-wing legal group Judicial Watch and who already represents a client in a libel claim against The New Republic . “We have put The New Republic on notice that I plan to take [legal] action,” Mr. Klayman said.
The libel insurers for Mr. Glass’ magazines may have a case for refusing to cover the magazines if they can establish negligence on the part of the reporter or the magazines. And Mr. Glass has potential legal exposure himself, not just to his subjects, but to his employers, whose standard contracts require a writer to certify his work as truthful.
And finally, there are those friends and associates who are striving to understand what led such a promising and well-liked colleague to deceive them and to make up stories when he was able enough to succeed honestly. Even Mr. Glass seems puzzled by the quandary. After losing his job, he told one former editor, “I have to figure out me.”