Stephen Glass was once a rising star of the Washington journalism scene. His writing, according to a 1998 exposé by Vanity Fair magazine, fused “the street poetry of Kerouac and psychological acuity of Freud.” He was hot stuff. But then, one day, his brilliant and short-lived career came to a sudden and dramatic end.
Glass, who wrote mainly for The New Republic – a New York and Washington-based magazine with hundred-year-old roots in the Progressive Movement – was raised in the well-to-do Chicago suburb of Highland Park. As a college student, he showed a keen interest in journalism. In fact, he was the executive editor of the University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper – a role he relished.
And in 1995, one year after his graduation, he landed an internship with The New Republic and worked as an assistant to the editor, Andrew Sullivan. But at that stage in his career, Glass had little flair for writing. Many of his ambitious young colleagues outshone him. He did have something going for him though. By all accounts, he was very personable.
In retrospect, his sweetness and modesty may not have been all they seemed. But in an industry crowded with overbearing egos, his self-effacing attitude made a refreshing change. In fact, Glass was apparently so vulnerable and eager to please, he could never really say “no.” And this endeared him to his colleagues.
Creatively, Glass’s breakthrough came in 1996 when the magazine’s owner, Martin Peretz, suggested he write a piece about how types of immigrants were taking the jobs of African-American taxi drivers in Washington. Glass spent months on the piece but the final copy impressed. “People were in wonderment about his ability to find these crazy characters,” said a former colleague to Vanity Fair.
Later that year, Glass submitted a scathing piece about the Center for Science in Public Interest. Controversially, he depicted a reactionary and frivolous organization led by one haughty and scheming Michael Jacobson. In one scene, Jacobson fanatically interrogates a waitress in a Chinese restaurant concerning their ingredients. Michael Kelly, the new editor of The New Republic, loved it.
However, Jacobson subsequently challenged the veracity of the piece, suggesting that the “minimum standards of objective journalism were consciously disregarded.” Kelly would hear none of it. He wrote back to Jacobson and called him a liar. “You have shown that you are willing to smear someone’s professional reputation without any concern for truth,” he wrote. “I await your apology to Stephen Glass and to this magazine.”
In March 1997, Glass had another breakthrough with a lurid piece about the Conservative Political Action Conference. Entitled “Spring Breakdown,” it depicted eight young Republicans on a debauched bender in a hotel. Drunk and stoned, they indulged in sexual misbehavior with the “ugliest and loneliest” woman they could lure back to their room. The piece was a hit, and Glass subsequently bagged commissions with prestigious outlets such as Rolling Stone, George and Harper’s.
The New Republic continued to receive complaints about Glass, but Kelly trusted his bright young reporter. Besides, Glass had worked as a fact checker at the magazine and had proven himself rigorous. “He was known as the best fact checker,” one staff member told Vanity Fair. “He was always ratting [people] out… always seen as the stickler… and the fact checkers came to trust him.”
In May 1998, the magazine published “Hack Heaven” by Stephen Glass – a story about a 15-year-old hacker called Ian Restil. According to Glass, the “pimply teenager” had hacked the network of a California tech company called Jukt Micronics and was now attempting to extort money from them. “I want more money,” Restil purportedly told the company executives. “Show me the money! Show me the money!”
It was an intriguing tale, but there were some puzzling inconsistencies. Editors from the website Forbes Digital Tool had noted that it seemed Jukt Micronics’ website had not been created by professionals, and it had just one phone line. More than this, the company did not appear in any corporate records. So along with new editor of The New Republic, Chuck Lane, they called up Glass and gave him a grilling.
Eventually Glass admitted that “Restil” may have scammed him. But Lane was unconvinced. Together they drove out to the Bethesda, Maryland hotel were the meeting with Restil and Jukt had supposedly taken place. Glass recounted the occasion in detail, showing Lane the conference room where they had all met. There was one small problem, however. According to a building engineer, the conference room had been closed on that day.
Meanwhile, Lane had received a perplexing phone call from one George Sims in Palo Alto, California, claiming to be a Jukt executive. In fact, Sims corroborated the whole story. But when Lane talked to a fellow editor and learned that Glass had a younger brother who lived in Palo Alto, the penny dropped: “George Sims” was actually Glass’s brother. And the entire story was a lie. Glass was found out and immediately sacked.
In fact, according to a subsequent investigation by The New Republic, Glass had partly or entirely fabricated 27 out of the 41 articles he penned between December 1995 and May 1998, including his piece about CSPI and Michael Jacobson. Some pieces contained real journalism laced with fabricated quotes. Others, such as “Hack Heaven,” were completely fictitious; the sole product of Glass’s colorful imagination.
Moreover, Glass had gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal his many deceptions. His notes, diagrams and sources were frequently fake. And he forged letterheads, faxes, memos and voicemails to substantiate them. He enlisted his brother to play the role of a corporate executive. And the amateurish “Jukt” website was his work too.
But how Glass managed to deceive his colleagues is not so much of a mystery as why. When – under pressure from Lane – Glass confessed to fabricating parts of “Hack Heaven,” he burst into tears and claimed that his life was falling apart. As well as working full time at the magazine, he was attending law school at the behest of his parents. It was too much, claimed Glass. And he feared losing his job.
But was he really just a naïve young journalist who buckled under too much pressure? Several people who knew Glass in high school and college say that he was incredibly driven to meet his parent’s expectations – and present them with ever more impressive achievements. This would appear to fit the portrait of a mild-mannered “people pleaser” painted by his colleagues at The New Republic.
Equally, Glass’s high ambitions masked a pathological disregard for the truth. As Lane told the Poynter Institute in 2004, “We extended normal human trust to someone who basically lacked a conscience… We thought Glass was interested in our personal lives, or our struggles with work, and we thought it was because he cared. Actually, it was all about sizing us up and searching for vulnerabilities. What we saw as concern was actually contempt.”
Glass passed the New York state bar exam in 2002 but was refused certification because of worries about his ethics. In 2014, the California Supreme Court also ruled that he should not be licensed to practice law. Meanwhile, Glass’s career in journalism is finished and buried. But he has continued to write. In 2003, Simon & Schuster published The Fabulist – a “biographical novel” based on his time at The New Republic.
The reviews of Glass’s novel were mixed and not entirely damning. However, one of the most critical came from Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. “The creep is doing it again,” he wrote. “Even when it comes to reckoning with his own sins, he is still incapable of nonfiction. The careerism of his repentance is repulsively consistent with the careerism of his crimes…”