He had me at “around the perimeter.” Right there—around the escalator bank in the brassy lobby of a building in Bethesda, Md.—is where the writer Stephen Glass once told Charles Lane, his former boss at the New Republic, that tables had been arranged for a conference of computer hackers that never happened.
These three words represented the abject, Hail-Mary end of a marvelous series of lies that Glass had told Lane, and his many readers, about sundry follies that had not in fact gone on in the world of politics, business, and technology. He had me with that phrase because the mortification of being brought up so short—having yourself unveiled as a thoroughgoing liar in an instant, on the studied word “perimeter” no less—must have been a near-death experience. I guess he had it coming, but I bet it was hell. It was May 1998, and Glass was caught.
Penitent, weary, Glass surveyed the Bethesda lobby on 60 Minutes (CBS, 7 p.m. ET) last night.Having completed a five-year course of therapy since his unmaking, Glass admitted to correspondent Steve Kroft, “I think it’s impossible to have a conference here.”
Along with a forthcoming novel called The Fabulist, Glass is the author of what 60 Minutes called “one of the greatest journalistic frauds in history.” To CBS, this means he made up details, facts, and quotations in “dozens of” colorful stories published in various magazines over a period of two years. The 60 Minutes segment told a sinner’s story about temptation, fall, and redemption. And to add intrigue, the producers made sure that Glass’ redemption was played for the cameras as a dubious one, since it appears timed to coincide with the publication of his novel.
Glass described to Kroft his first taste of vice, which he got while working on a boring starter story for TNR about a new law in Washington. “I remember thinking, ‘If I just had the exact quote that I wanted to make it work, it would be perfect.’ And I wrote something on my computer, and then I looked at it, and I let it stand.” Thus were born Glass’ greatest journalistic fictions: the church of George Herbert Walker Christ, the convention at which Monica Lewinsky condoms were sold, and the tales of lechery by Vernon Jordan and miscellaneous young Republicans.
Glass, it seems, was lying not for a cause—he had no ideological stake in his news-of-the-weird stories—but for love. “I loved the electricity of people liking my stories,” he told Kroft. “I wanted them to love the story so they would love me.”
But love cost him—peace of mind, self-possession—as he wove a tangled Web site, faked voice mails, and forged faxes to authenticate his stories, placating fact-checkers and other auditors. At last, Lane, growing suspicious after Forbes.com reported a vain effort to pursue a Glass doozy about a 15-year-old hacker-extortionist, asked his writer to take him to the site of the hacker convention. How Glass’ knees must have wobbled on the Bethesda stroll, which he tightly re-enacted for the viewers of 60 Minutes.
The camera panned around the lobby, which had in it no oval table, no projection screen, no privacy. “It was definitely not the most likely site for a conference,” observed the voice-over.
And then Kroft asked a version of the question friends and colleagues of Glass have likely been asking themselves for years. “Now, is the Stephen Glass in this 60 Minutes interview really Stephen Glass or just another character that he has invented?”
“I know people are going to think that,” replied Glass, himself no fool. “And while I know I am not inventing the person I’m sharing with you now, I can’t make you believe that. All I can do is continue to behave in a way that earns your trust.”
Those whom 60 Minutes interviewed did not seem persuaded by this new Glass agonistes. Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of the New Republic, called Glass a worm. Lane said he still believed Glass would lie about the weather. Others with whom Glass had worked were said by Kroft to be “cynical about the apology.”
But what apology? Though he has said the magic words elsewhere, Glass could never once be heard saying, “I’m sorry” on Sunday’s broadcast. But would “I’m sorry” have done the trick? To my eye, the person Glass was sharing with us now seemed persuasively sorry. Why wouldn’t he be? That agonizing May day would make anyone sorry. And Glass didn’t act defensive on 60 Minutes. He didn’t seem pleased with himself. He looked as penitent as the average crook who is said to have shown remorse.
As the camera showed close-up after close-up of Glass’ opaque face, however, I wondered what we expected from him and what would certify that he had changed. A level tone of voice, acid self-reproach, vows of future truthfulness, a sustained wail? Or was he supposed to promise to donate the profits from The Fabulist to the Poynter Institute’s program for journalistic ethics? Or to a fund for defamed hackers or Vernon Jordan? And would that expiate?
Now that the lies of Stephen Glass, as well as New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, have been so ceremoniously revealed and condemned, what’s next? For the time being, the former journalists appear to be sentenced to nothing more than sitting still while the most powerful people in journalism spit, hunting for synonyms for “worm” and “creep.” Having failed to censor the well-wrought lies for years, the bosses appear to be set on proving, above all, that they won’t be fooled again.
“What you’re covering now is contrition as a career move,” Wieseltier reproachfully told the CBS newsman, leaving open the pressing question of what, in journalism, contrition as contrition might be.