The adorable little weenie I knew was nothing but a con artist.
By Sabrina Rubin Erdely
I used to feel almost sorry for Stephen Glass C’94. I don’t anymore.
When in 1998 the news first broke that Glass had been fired from his job as a writer for The New Republicafter making up the details of 27 of his articles, I was shocked—but found myself scrambling to explain away my former classmate’s behavior. I imagined he’d buckled under the pressure of his skyrocketing journalism career. I imagined he was too sweet and fragile to handle the demands of his own high expectations. Even as the evidence mounted against him—it emerged that Glass had also fabricated in the pages of Rolling Stone, George, and Harper’s, and had covered his tracks through elaborate deception—I struggled to make sense of his actions. I resisted the explanation I’ve come to believe since then: that the adorable little weenie I knew from our days at The Daily Pennsylvanian was nothing but a con artist.
Shattered Glass, the gripping movie about Glass’s rise and fall (and based on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger C’76), reinforces the notion of Glass as a pathetic and somewhat sinister manipulator. When the movie catches up with him, he’s a couple of years out of Penn and already reaching great heights at The New Republic. Hayden Christensen’s fine performancebrings to life the Steve Glass I remember so well from college, a font of self-effacing enthusiasm who walks around the office in his socks, dispensing encouragement and compliments to anyone who’ll pay attention, and whose body language seems to fold in upon itself with insecurity.
Christensen’s Glass desperately wants to be liked, and makes no effort to hide it. “Are you mad at me?” he constantly asks, a habit as endearing as it is grating. He takes a certain pride in his role as lovable geek. When he throws a house party for his coworkers, he alphabetizes the beer, with one bucket labeled “A-N” and the other “M-Z.” (Incredibly, Glass actually did this in real life.) It reminded me of how one year at the DP’s liquor-soaked annual banquet, Glass got on the mic after midnight to remind everyone to return their rented tuxes by 2:30 that afternoon—good-naturedly playing the Thoughtful Nerd for laughs.
In the movie, Glass thrives on his coworkers’ positive feedback. And he gets plenty of it, considering that his reporting talents are unmatched at TNR. He always manages to find the most unexpected topics, the most colorful characters, the most pitch-perfect quotes. In story conferences, Glass enthralls the staff with details of his upcoming articles—about pot-smoking, orgy-loving young Republicans; about a teenage computer hacker who’s awarded a million-dollar contract by the company he sabotaged—and is electrified by his peers’ amazement. But then, always careful to play down his accomplishments, he finishes by slumping in his chair, remarking with false modesty that the story is too “silly” to be worthwhile. “I might not even finish it,” he tells them, pouting. Naturally, his coworkers rush to reassure him of its brilliance.
No one on TNR’s staff is suspicious of the painfully self-deprecating kid who is so eager to please. Christensen plays Glass as more obsequious than the real-life version, but conveys the original’s disarming charm. He comes across as utterly harmless; even his sexless demeanor seems designed to avoid offense. His friends can’t help but want to protect him. Which helps explain why Glass’s deceptions aren’t caught sooner; his peers simply want to believe him too badly.
That might have been the case at The Daily Pennsylvanian, as well. Looking back, some of us have questioned the veracity of one particular Glass article, in which he followed a group of homeless men around for a day, taking notes as they drank Thunderbird, fought, procured prostitutes, and smoked crack. “Johnnie is the leader of his ‘posse,’ a club of several dozen homeless people that has its own intricate rules and traditions,” it read. “All members of the club identify their allegiance by donning an American Heart Association button and a Zenith Data Systems painter’s cap.” The reporting felt almost too good to be true. At the time, it seemed like proof of Glass’s know-how. Now we wonder if it might have been our first glimpse of the fabulist he’d soon become.
It ultimately takes an outsider to unmask him, when a Forbes writer (played by Steve Zahn) following up on one of Glass’s articles discovers the whole thing is a sham. The extended scene in which editor Chuck Lane (the excellent Peter Sarsgaard) unravels Glass’s fictions is almost painful to watch; in it a panicky Glass, scrambling to prove the truthfulness of his articles, piles lies atop already flimsy lies. The trajectory of the story is inevitable, of course—everyone who’s seen the trailer knows Glass gets caught in the end—but the movie still manages to feel fresh and suspenseful as it speeds towards its conclusion.
I found the movie riveting—although, due to the personal connection, plus the fact that Shattered Glassportrays my own line of work (realistically, I might add), I’m an admittedly biased viewer. As the lights came up, however, I felt dissatisfied by the film, because it never attempts to resolve the big question: Why did he do it? Perhaps director Billy Ray, who had no access to Glass during the filmmaking, was never able to come up with the answers, and—in his efforts to remain true to the facts—didn’t want to make any leaps of his own. There are allusions to the pressure Glass was under and to his demanding parents; there’s a suggestion that Glass enjoyed the celebrity of being a young hotshot, and cut corners in his quest for fame. And yet none of these seem enough to explain why a journalist would not only make up his articles, but would also go to such extreme lengths to cover his tracks, by concocting phony notes, inventing Web sites for phony companies and voicemail boxes for phony sources. All things considered, Glass’s fabrications and cover-ups probably took more time and effort (and produced more anxiety) than if he’d just done the reporting in the first place.
These aren’t the actions of a person under strain, as I once tried to convince myself, or of a man-child being suffocated by his overbearing parents. They’re the actions of a sociopathic creep. The movie points in that direction, but doesn’t try to nail it down. What was Glass after? What was he running from? The movie ultimately doesn’t shed much light, and Stephen Glass himself isn’t telling. If, that is, he even knows.
Sabrina Rubin Erdely C’94 is a senior writer at Philadelphia Magazine.