Reviews for Shattered Glass, the new movie about the journalistic fabricator Stephen Glass, have been largely favorable, but critics have voiced some skepticism that the broad public will flock to a movie whose central character is a writer for the New Republic. “I’m not sure how interested the moviegoing public will be in the internecine struggles of the New Republic,” wrote Slate’s estimable film critic, David Edelstein. Chatterbox, who began his own journalism career at the New Republic, briefly wondered the same thing. But then he remembered that Shattered Glass was not the first movie to depict a morally compromised New Republic writer. That distinction belongs to Born Yesterday (1950), adapted from Garson Kanin’s hit play. Both play and film starred Judy Holliday, who won an Oscar for her role. The male lead, played in the movie by William Holden, was a writer for the New Republic named Paul Verrall. (In 1993, Don Johnson played opposite his real-life wife, Melanie Griffith, in a god-awful remake that made Paul’s place of employment somewhat less clear. The remake was written by Douglas McGrath, who at the time was himself a regular New Republic contributor.)
Born Yesterday is a comedy about a chorine named Billie Dawn (Holliday) who comes to Washington, D.C., with her beau, a war profiteer named Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). Harry is scheming to bribe and schmooze the government into giving him a sweetheart deal to control the military scrap market. Worried that Billie is making a poor impression on Washington’s social circuit, Harry hires Paul (Holden), who has been investigating Harry’s shenanigans, to play Pygmalion to Billie’s Galatea. Harry pays Paul $200 a week, which is $75 more than he’s making at the New Republic, to tutor Billie. (According to longtime New Republic critic Stanley Kauffman, Paul’s $125 salary caused “bitter hilarity” among New Republic staffers when the play premiered in 1946.) Paul and Billie fall in love, and the two join forces to blackmail Harry into abandoning his corrupt plan.
Part of Born Yesterday’s retrospective charm is that it doesn’t dwell on Paul’s violation of journalistic ethics. Paul accepts payment from a man he’s set out to expose; he gets too close to a female source; and in the end, he buries the story for the express purpose of influencing government policy. The Columbia Journalism Review’s indictment practically writes itself. But Born Yesterday, true to its era, embraces a more expansive definition of right and wrong. Frank Rich, who as drama critic for the New York Times found the play charmingly dated when he reviewed a 1989 Broadway revival starring Madeline Kahn, observed,
To Harry’s horror, Billie turns into a whistle-blowing crusader once her tutor has awakened her to Tom Paine and Dickens. “This country and its institutions belong to the people who inhabit it!” she says after seeing the light, and she means it. Born Yesterday believes there’s nothing wrong with America that cannot be righted by an informed citizenry.
Far from being a villain, Paul is presented as a hero who by introducing Billie to high culture and high ideals inspires her to stop an oligarch from compromising the common good. Born Yesterday ends with a Capra-esque toast to “all the dumb chumps and all the crazy broads … who thirst for knowledge—and search for truth—who fight for justice.” By comparison, Shattered Glass seems a bit myopic. The fabrication of quotes and anecdotes is, of course, deplorable, but society’s demands on the press should begin, not end, with the insistence that reporters not be con artists.
Seven months into Born Yesterday’s Broadway run, Henry Wallace, commerce secretary to President Truman (whom President Roosevelt had chosen to replace Wallace on the 1944 ticket) was ousted for giving a speech complaining that Truman was insufficiently accommodating to the Soviet Union, which at the time was colonizing Eastern Europe. Wallace was hired to be editor of the New Republic, which he used as a platform to oppose Truman’s containment policy (later, he would oppose even the Marshall Plan) and as a launching pad for his 1948 presidential run under the Communist-influenced Progressive Party. Of course, Wallace lost, and his career as a Communist dupe was over before Born Yesterday completed its Broadway run in 1949. (Wallace publicly acknowledged having misjudged the Soviets two years after Born Yesterday was released as a movie.)
“If I had to write a history of disgraces at the New Republic,” the magazine’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier said last week, the New Republic’s association with Wallace “would have to come in first.” Second place, Chatterbox would add, might be reserved for the magazine’s apologetics for Stalin’s purges during the 1930s. The New Republic’s decision in the 1990s to excerpt Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve, which employed pseudoscience to argue that blacks were genetically inferior to whites, might come in fifth or sixth, but at any rate well ahead of Glass’ hoaxes. Indeed, though we can all be grateful that former NewRepublic editor Charles Lane exposed Glass as a fraud, Lane’s exposure (while working as a New Republic writer) of The Bell Curve’s crackpot sources was a more significant contribution to humanity. But go make a movie out of an essay in the New York Review of Books.