Hayden Christensen portrays the unscrupulous Stephen Glass in Shattered Glass. (courtesy photo)

Journalist and fraud Stephen Glass is one bad byline

Shattered Glass begins and ends in a classroom, and its lesson drives a sliver through the heart of any honest viewer. Stephen Glass, a literary wünderkind who, at 24, became a star writer for the venerable The New Republic, has returned to his high school journalism class to inspire a new generation of adolescents and gloat over his own success. "See what happens when greatness is demanded of you," boasts his former teacher, vindicated in her rigorous pedagogy by Glass' dazzling accomplishments. Glass declares: "Journalism is about telling the truth."

The truth, in writer-director Billy Ray's account of a recent publishing scandal, is that Glass was an egregious fake who concocted two or three dozen articles he slipped past fact-checkers at the The New Republic. The film's classroom scene is itself a fabrication, designed to be the figment of a narcissistic, overwrought imagination. Instead of basking in the adulation of adolescent wannabes, Stephen Glass, like Jayson Blair, became a pariah of his profession, his name synonymous with journalistic fraud. The story of a talented man undone by his own hubris, Shattered Glass would be an Aristotelian tragedy, except that its protagonist is irredeemably smarmy. Forever angling to exploit an opportunity, even at the end, Glass never attains the tragic recognition that would enable him to transcend his degradation.

Twenty-seven years after All the President's Men celebrated investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as paragons of fortitude in pursuit of truth, Shattered Glass tells the story of the anti-Woodstein, a bounder starving for fame who shows scant respect for accuracy. Set in Washington, D.C., in May 1998, as Glass' gaudy quilt of lies unravels, it is a horror tale about an unscrupulous monster who invades a magazine of principled opinion and almost overcomes its staff. A disaster movie, it is the specter of a self-destructing life.

From the outset, Hayden Christensen's Glass is an ingratiating charlatan who uses ebullience to mask his raw ambition. At a staff meeting, he vaunts his latest scoop - how a 15-year-old hacker managed to extort extravagant compensation from the corporation he was victimizing. But when the piece appears in print, Adam Penenberg (Zahn), a rival reporter for an online publication, becomes suspicious; the story seems too good to be true. When Penenberg confronts Glass with his doubts, the elaborate edifice of falsehoods begins to collapse.

Shattered Glass

Dir. & writ. Billy Ray, based on an article by Buzz Bissinger; feat. Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey, Steve Zahn, Hank Azaria (PG-13)
No bullets are fired in Shattered Glass, but the emotional violence is devastating. The most explosive moment comes about halfway through, as Glass fumbles when asked to verify his sources. The camera focuses on his editor, Charles Lane (Sarsgaard), whose seismographic face registers a sudden loss of confidence in one of his leading writers. Lane had just been elevated to the editorship of The New Republic to replace the sacked but saintly Michael Kelly (Azaria) - who went on to edit The Atlantic and to be killed covering combat in Iraq. Getting rid of Glass, Lane confronts an office mutiny of resentful staffers convinced that he is merely out to purge a Kelly protégé.

Ray refrains from enlarging the context, to an entire culture of celebrity in which the appearance of accomplishment is more desirable than accomplishment itself. Glass is a creature of the age of Enron, in which egocentric scoundrels abuse the public trust. By focusing entirely on the few days in May 1998 that undid Stephen Glass, Ray intensifies the drama but risks playing inside baseball for audiences that root for other sports. At barely 80,000, the circulation of The New Republic is meager for a national magazine, and its besting by a reporter from a suggests defeat for all print media. But as long as the most popular cable news channel proclaims itself "fair and balanced" when it is manifestly neither, it would be a mistake to take the Glass scam as an isolated, special case. "We blew it," says Lane after assessing the damage one bad byline caused. "Just because we found him entertaining." Glass is not the only instance in which entertainment skews the public's view of truth.

The imaginary classroom scene, in which the famous professional returns to arouse the awe and envy of high school journalists, confirms that vanity, not verity drove Glass to do what he did. Exposure itself - the fantasy of a pathological liar - feeds the viewer's self-righteous confidence in ultimate justice. However, Stephen Glass, now 30, did in fact stage a dramatic return to the classroom, more recently. On November 7, 2003, he addressed about 50 students in a seminar on "Ethics in Journalism" at George Washington University. According to a report in the Washington Post, the two-hour session was "a maddening marathon of psychotherapeutic babble, a sad show of denial by a young man desperate to be recognized as a penitent." After concluding: "I've led a pretty wholly unethical life," Glass received a warm round of applause as he made his exit. I trust that the Post correspondent, Marc Fisher, actually attended the session and that his report is accurate and honest. •


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