“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
That’s what editors tell young reporters. Journalists believe that telling the truth is more than their job; it is almost a sacred obligation. And yet, every so often a reporter just makes up a story and it is published as fact. Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke fabricated a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a child addicted to drugs. When reporter Jayson Blair fabricated details of his stories, the two top editors of the New York Times lost their jobs.
These scandals always get exhaustively reported, first because journalists do not want to be accused of failing to cover their own industry the way they do everyone else. And it is a very self-involved and competitive industry with journalists naturally fascinated by what their friends and competition are doing. And then there is good old schadenfreude, the pleasure people take in seeing other people suffer.
This is the story of one of the most schadenfreude-inducing scandals in the history of journalism. In 1998, the editor of the tiny but prestigious New Republic, which describes itself as “the inflight magazine of Air Force One,” found that star writer Stephen Glass had fabricated dozens of stories.
The New Republic had 15 writer/editors with a median age of 26. Glass (Hayden Christensen) was the youngest and the office pet. He dazzled everyone with charming compliments and even more charming self-deprecation. He had an intuitive sense of how to impress people without making them jealous or competitive. He brought people coffee, helped them with their stories, and, then he begged for their help, too, letting everyone know that he did not think he was as good as they were. That was an ideal mix for the hothouse environment of the magazine.
He wanted to be everything to everyone. He would do anything for attention and affection. He constantly asked “Are you mad?” “Do you hate me?” And everyone laughed and assured him that everything was okay.
The real-life Glass was perfectly named. From one angle, his shiny surface reflected back to observers whatever they wanted to see. But then the angle shifted slightly and they could see through him as though there was nothing there. At the end, when Glass is still desperately trying to be loved, making himself appear the victim, his editor says, “It’s a hell of a story. Stop pitching, Steve. It’s over.”
We know from the beginning that Glass lied, and the movie has enough respect for the complexity of human motivation not to try to explain why. So, it is a story of how the lie was uncovered, but it is less a detective story or even a rise-and-fall hubris tale than a story about how, in the end, journalism really is about telling the truth. An editor for a small, far-from-prestigious website tosses Glass’s story about a teenage hacker to Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), one of his reporters, asking why he didn’t get that story himself. Penenberg begins to dig and finds out that only one fact in the Glass story checks out: “There does seem to be a state in the union named Nevada.” Glass and Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), his editor, find out what it is like to be under the microscope instead of peering through it.
Although the movie’s introduction makes it clear that Glass is a liar, screenwriter/director Billy Ray (Hart’s War) manages to keep us unsettled by not always letting us know what is real and what is imagined by Glass. Christensen is fine, though we are never as charmed by Glass as his colleagues at The New Republic. Maybe it is just being forewarned that makes Glass seem less ingratiating than just grating. Ray has a good feel for the culture and atmosphere of the community of Washington journalists — overworked, underpaid, and a little too smart and inbred. There are splendid performances by Sarsgaard, Zahn, and especially Hank Azaria as the late Michael Kelly.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and references to drug use and prostitutes. There are tense and upsetting scenes, including a suicide threat.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Glass lied and why people wanted to believe him. They might also want to take a look at The New Republic and see what those folks who fly on Air Force One are reading about.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Quiz Show, another movie about a real-life scandal. There are many great movies about real-life reporters who live up to the highest ideals of journalism, including the Oscar-winning All the President’s Men.