06 November, 2003

FABULOUSLY YOURS

People read newspapers and magazines expecting to believe what they read. They do not usually wonder whether what they are reading is partially or entirely fabricated. In countries where there are only a few media companies controlling entire conglomerates of television and print media, the independent newspaper and magazine becomes even more of a vital source of information. The United States, for instance, where four or five major corporations control the majority of news media in the entire continent, is often cited as a nation where the quality of news suffers as a consequence of the consolidation of media outlets. So its independent news sources are often elevated to a higher status.

The New Republic is a policy magazine published out of Washington DC that boasts of being the "inflight magazine of Airforce 1" - Airforce 1 being the airforce of the president. Started in 1914, the magazine has enjoyed respectable influence in the upper echelons of policy and politics. So it was more than unusually devastating when a young reporter by the name of Steven Glass was found to have fabricated 27 out of the 41 articles he had written for various different issues of this magazine in the 1980s.

"Shattered Glass", a film about this young, driven reporter who was hell-bent on fabricating entertaining stories in order to further his career, is premiering in New York this week. The movie raises interesting questions about the standards of journalism, the relationship between the writer and the editor, as well as the responsibility of the publication in checking facts and sources before publishing. Predictably, it is getting a lot of press coverage.

"Shattered Glass" comes hot on the heels of the Jayson Blair scandal. Jayson Blair, an up and coming journalist in the New York Times, was exposed to have fabricated many of the details of the stories he wrote about. The fabrications, including colorful descriptions of places he had never been, were noticed numerous times by other reporters and sources, but the editors continued to let him write his pieces without interruption. Then the shit hit the fan, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the case of Steven Glass, the shit only hit the fan after Forbes, an online publication, noticed that none of the sources cited on an article he had written about hackers existed in real life. "This guy is toast," mutters the journalist who exposes Glass's fictions during one of the scenes in which the editors of the two publications try to verify the existence of numerous non-existent people in his story. Glass tried to cover up his fabrication with an elaborate web of lies, including getting his brother to pose as one of the characters in his story and by putting up a fake website for a fake company. Surprisingly, many of his colleagues defended him even after he was exposed.

Billy Ray, screenwriter and director, was especially interested in this "cult of personality" aspect of the story. Charismatic people are often allowed to get away with things that most other people would not, he said. Glass, who was twenty-five, was very popular amongst his colleagues. Ray, who grew up in a household where the two journalists who caused the fall of the Nixon administration were idolized, said that he grew up thinking of journalists as truth-tellers, and the current rash of young and unscrupulous journalists was a fall from grace for the profession. His own attempt to make the film mirrors journalistic integrity, he said. Only stories that could be independently verified were used, and sources were scrupulous checked and cross-checked.

Asked why Glass's fictions went unremarked upon for so long, Ray said that the New Republic, as a magazine that catered to liberal democrats, was running the kind of stories its audience liked to hear. One of Glass's most famous fictional pieces was a purported reportage on a young Republicans get-together. Glass cooked up an elaborate piece about how the Republicans got drunk and harassed fat women. The story was exactly what the audience expected to hear, Ray said - to the point where they took it to be truth. Protests from the convention organizers were brushed aside by the magazine. Quoting one of the editors, Ray said: If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and then slowly put the heat up centigrade by centigrade, the frog will cook without noticing its being cooked. And that's what happened to the entire staff of the New Republic.

The force of cold cash is stronger than any ethical considerations in a market economy - and this is none more clearer than in the book deals that both Steven Glass and Jayson Blair have received from the publishing industry to write their respective stories. The industry clearly hopes to cash in on the sensational and totally free publicity. Glass, who went on to get a law degree from Georgetown - that factoid's for real, I am not fabricating it solely for your amusement - has written a novel called "The Fabulist". It is about a young journalist called Steven Glass who fabricates stories to further his career. Go figure.

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