Catfishing, 1990s Style: The Stephen Glass Phenomenon
December 12, 2014, 10:09 PM
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From the U. of Pennsylvania Gazette:

Through a Glass Darkly

Samuel Hughes

Nov./Dec. 1998

“I have to get this off my chest,” wrote Stephen Glass, C’94. “I have a confession to make. During my tenure as Executive Editor of this newspaper, I have allowed a grave omission to occur.”

A tantalizing lead for his farewell “Enemy of the People” column in The Daily Pennsylvanian [DP]. Five years later, the reader is intrigued: What awful sin was this now-infamous alumnus going to cough up? Could it be that — even back then — he had spun quotes and characters from whole cloth and was about to admit it?

Well, not exactly. The “grave omission” was that he hadn’t publicly praised his own staff, the scores of students who worked under him, “laboring to all hours in the night in their idealistic quest for truth, justice, and the American way.” A little fulsome, maybe — the DP was rather full of itself that year, especially after stolen newspapers and Water Buffaloes catapulted it onto the national stage — but a nice gesture. No wonder his staff adored him.

As that farewell column continued, Glass began spinning an image that is somewhat more remarkable in hindsight than it was at the time: that of a looking glass, a mirror of the University itself, which the DP’s staffers “slave in this office for hours on end to construct.” And it was that mirror’s reflection, he wrote, “that allows members of the University to be self-critical and strive for excellence.”

Then there was this: “This mirror is not and should not be ‘nice.’ Rather, this reflection is more useful when the glass is pure — emphasizing each wrinkle and each scar. Only by seeing our true self will we ever improve.” …

Glass, glass, glass, glass, glass, glass.

The Stephen Glass story has been far more enthralling to writers than to the public for a lot of obvious reasons, but a subtle one is that the metaphors write themselves: e.g., Shattered Glass.

Writers love writing about glass.

The title of this 1998 article, “Through a Glass Darkly,” comes from St. Paul. Alice Through the Looking Glass is from Lewis Carroll. Hamlet is called the “glass of fashion” and in Shakespeare’s most self-referential speech, the Prince of Denmark advises the Players “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” Perhaps the most bravura variations on glass/mirror imagery are found in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the story of the Prince of Zembla hunted by a communist assassin from the Glass Works.

At age 25, he was fired from his job as associate editor of The New Republic, and his freelance contracts with George, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s were cancelled. … Now there are Web sites with titles like A Tissue of Lies: the Stephen Glass Index cataloguing his inventions and the media commentary — of which there has been truckloads, including lengthy features in recent issues of Vanity Fair and Philadelphia magazine by DP alums Buzz Bissinger, C’76, and Sabrina Rubin [Erdely], C’94. …

The title of the future Rolling Stone writer’s article about her old boss was “Stained Glass.”

It’s important to keep in mind that Glass’s fabrications were insultingly absurd:

What could have transformed the likeable, talented, high-minded young editor who was constantly asking people “Are you mad at me?” into a spinner of mendacious and increasingly whacked-out yarns about churches whose members believed that George Bush was the reincarnation of Christ and shopping-mall Santas whose fear of child-molestation suits led to a Union of Concerned Santas and Easter Bunnies?

I only read one of Glass’s articles in TNR back in the 1990s, “Praised Be Greenspan” which Glass co-authored with the now prominent Jonathan Chait about cultists who supposedly worship the Fed Chairman. It was ludicrous:

… another bond-trading outfit has turned an empty office into a Greenspan shrine. Dozens of news photographs of Greenspan adorn the walls; glass casing encloses two Bic pens Greenspan supposedly used in 1993. Quotations from more than 30 of his speeches are posted under a sign that reads “Greenspan’s Teachings.” The centerpiece is a red leather chair that sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by blue velvet ropes. A placard perched on the armrest says Greenspan sat in the chair in 1948–at the time, he was still in college. “Some nights when we’ve lost money,” trader Brent Donalds confides, “I come in here and sit in the chair and think. It gives me inspiration.”

Many trading houses use a software program which translates any Greenspan sentence into a predicted market reaction, using a database of all his public remarks. The program bills itself as the “Talmud of the Federal Reserve– interpreting his every word!”

Lots of people at the time wrote in to point out that Glass’s stories were palpable hoaxes, but his admiring coworkers, such as Hanna Rosin and Chait, could see nothing dubious about them.

Back to Hughes’ 1998 story for the Penn magazine “Through a Glass Darkly:”

“When this thing first broke,” says Philadelphia magazine editor Eliot Kaplan, C’78, “I was hoping that he would hold a press conference and say, ‘I’ve been secretly doing a book on how easy it is to fool the mainstream press, and now my book will be out next year.’ But that didn’t happen.

“How easy it is to fool the mainstream press” is one lesson evident in the oeuvre of Sabrina Rubin Erdely (who, perhaps not coincidentally, worked for Kaplan at Philadelphia at the time of Glass’ shaming in 1998), with her tales of, say, a neo-Nazi viciously attacking a transgender individual’s scissors with his swastika-tattooed chest.

Sabrina Rubin, who says she and the rest of the editorial board “adored” him, puts it another way: “There are reporters who get ahead because they’re great schmoozers, and I think Steve was definitely one of them.” When he became the paper’s executive editor, the editorial board hailed him as a “man of principle,” and in her Philadelphia magazine piece, Rubin describes how Glass threw a righteous fit when she and a colleague concocted a funny and obviously made-up travel story for 34th Street — going so far as to call an emergency session of the DP’s Alumni Association board to apprise them of the transgression. (Rubin also acknowledges that she felt “terrible” about writing a fairly dishy article about someone she had once liked and admired. “Actually, Eliot [Kaplan] had to force me to do it,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it at all.”) …

Recall that in 1998 Eliot was Sabrina’s boss, the fellow who hoped Glass was trolling the mainstream press to show how easy it is to fool them.

Most members of the DP felt that Glass not only reacted appropriately to what they saw as a blatant attempt at censorship but that he handled the high-pressure situation with poise. “Steve really distinguished himself as a true leader,” says Rubin [Erdely]. “The rest of us were basically in a panic — when we found out that the entire press run had been stolen and thrown away, we felt like we were under attack, and we didn’t understand the reasons why. Steve originally thought the people who had done it should be prosecuted and all the other stuff, but then he cooled down and he calmed everybody else down. And he had a little talk with [editorial-page editor] Kenny Baer, and he said, ‘Everything’s got to come through me; we can’t have everybody else talking; I’ll be the spokesman.’ Whenever he was quoted in all these different magazines, whatever he’d say, he could talk in sound bites. He knew exactly how to handle the situation — he knew people really well.” …

It was “Hack Heaven” — a story about a bratty teenage computer hacker who was blackmailing software companies that appeared in the May 18, 1998, New Republic — which led to Glass’s unmasking as a writer of fiction posing as a journalist. (And not a very good fiction-writer, either; the dialogue in that piece is ludicrous.) The former fact-checker was exposed by an online journalist from Forbes Digital Tool named Adam Penenberg, who couldn’t figure out why he had never heard of “Jukt Micronics” and why Jukt’s Web site (which featured a “rebuttal” of “Hack Heaven”) was so blatantly amateurish.

“I am sure Glass would have been caught eventually,” says Penenberg. “Usually when Glass faked a piece, he would use first names, or rely on anonymous sources and fabricated notes to fool editors and fact-checkers. But with ‘Hack Heaven,’ perhaps we were seeing the beginning of the end. He actually provided first and last names, a government agency and a law, a convention he wrote had occurred in Bethesda, Md. He was becoming careless. Perhaps he wanted to get caught.”

Perhaps after writing so many dubious articles, Sabrina Rubin Erdely wanted to get caught too?

Or maybe Rubin Erdely was playing a game to see how many clues she could stuff into one article and still fool the mainstream press?

Consider that there are four separate references in Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus” to glass shattering. her second and third references to a Night of Broken Glass are just her scene-setting at fraternity row as Erdely subliminally implies that UVA’s “overwhelmingly blond” students are on the verge of some kind of Kristallnacht:

Hundreds of women in crop tops and men in khaki shorts stagger between handsome fraternity houses, against a call-and-response soundtrack of “Whoo!” and breaking glass. “Do you know where Delta Sig is?” a girl slurs, sloshed. Behind her, one of her dozen or so friends stumbles into the street, sending a beer bottle shattering.

But Erdely’s first and fourth references to glass shattering are self-evidently absurd:

- First, Jackie and her first rapist crash through the low glass table in the rape room spreading shards that grind into Jackie but, apparently, not into any of the seven rapists.

This should have been a huge clue that Erdely’s tale is bogus. Indeed, the very first comment on the seminal piece of skepticism, Richard Bradley’s blog post “Is The Rolling Stone Story True?” is:

Wouldn’t the rapists get cut by the broken glass all over the floor, too? I guess they were such sex-crazed animals that they didn’t notice the glass cutting their hands and knees for the first three hours.

Steve Sailer
11/25/2014 6:25 am

- Second, a year and a half later, a male chauvinist pig shatters a bottle over the now activist Jackie’s face on Charlottesville’s main drag:

But payback for being so public on a campus accustomed to silence was swift. This past spring, in separate incidents, both Emily Renda and Jackie were harassed outside bars on the Corner by men who recognized them from presentations and called them “c***” and “feminazi bitch.” One flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.

But there’s no follow-up … other than Dean Nicole Eramo not reacting when Jackie tells her all about it:

“As Jackie wrapped up her story, she was disappointed by Eramo’s nonreaction. She’d expected shock, disgust, horror.

Look, this second attack on Jackie would quite possibly be the most notorious hate crime of the decade: there’d be national calls for not just Hate Crime charges but also Attempted Murder charges to be filed against her assailant … assuming it ever happened, which it almost certainly didn’t.

So what’s the point of Erdely including all these Shattered Glass literary clues that her story is a fabrication? Did they subconsciously slip in through some Freudian process? Did she put them there consciously to indicate guilt? Self-loathing? Or was Erdely trying to top her old boss? Was she playing a game to express her contempt for her audience by dangling evidence that she was engaged in a Shattered Glass-style hoax directly in front of everyone’s noses?

Perhaps our dominant culture demands so much lying about gender, rape, sexual orientation and the like that members of the media are shattering under the stress?

By the way, that’s Chloe Sevigny playing a character based on Hanna Rosin. Here’s Rosin’s husband David Plotz’s take on Shattered Glass:

Hayden Christensen plays the opaque, empty Glass, who is both weaker and more ambitious than his colleagues, cheating madly to win the approval he craves. Peter Sarsgaard as Lane is the moral center of the movie, an Old Testament kind of avenger, righteous but dark.

And Chloë Sevigny—that’s Oscar-nominated Chloë Sevigny!—plays Caitlin Avey, a character modeled on Hanna. In the movie, as in life, Caitlin/Hanna is a loyal and ferocious friend who is ultimately chastened by how she was suckered. This is fantasy come true: A Hollywood starlet dressed up in my wife’s clothes, talking sass at machine-gun speed like my wife, and looking as much like my wife as a blond straight-haired American can look like a brunet curly-haired Israeli.

Is Shattered Glass any good? I think so, but I don’t know. Lane—the real Lane—has described the experience of watching it as something like being tickled. I know what he means. It was so unsettling to see the fake Steve acting almost like Steve did, and the fake Hanna acting almost like Hanna did, and the fake Mike Kelly acting almost like Mike Kelly that my brain simply stuttered. (Most eerily, the director turned the character of Jonathan Chait, Steve’s other TNR friend, into a woman—then cast an actress who looks astonishingly like Chait himself.)