Monday, November 24, 2003

Journalists have been on a bit of a thumbsucking tear since Stephen Glass, author of numerous wholly fabricated stories at the New Republic, recently appeared at a panel on journalistic ethics, following the opening of the film "Shattered Glass", based on his "career". Reaction to his return to the public eye has been, to say the least, less than effusive. Andrew Sullivan excoriated Glass' self-serving new pseudo-apologetic public demeanor. Jack Shafer spent a couple of articles pondering just what kind of brutal tortures might be fitting punishments for his crimes. Jonathan Chait, ever the intellectual, worried that his case might distract people from the real problem with journalism: that not enough writers see the world exactly the way Jonathan Chait does. Other scribes speculated on the nature of Glass' psychopathology, or applauded the film's brisk pacing and sharp characterizations.

None of these recent commentaries, however, address the main journalistic theme of the film: that Glass' perfidy succeeded because his colorful, zany, almost comic-novelistic stories seduced readers, colleagues and editors alike--and that all of them should have been paying more attention to the articles' intellectual content (let alone their basic accuracy) than to their flashiness. Glass' hilarious touches--the orgy at the Young Republicans' convention, the workoholic stockbroker who relieved himself into a medical contraption to avoid having to leave his desk, the teenaged computer hacker with his own agent for job contract negotiations--were (as Shafer pointed out five years ago) "too good to check", not because they confirmed strong real-life suspicions--or even because they catered to wishful expectations or simplistic prejudices--but rather because their energy and vividness, their perfect balance on the edge between plausibility and wild absurdity, made them fascinating to read whether they were true or not.

Perhaps the reason why this point hasn't been adequately addressed in all the journalistic commentary on the Glass story is that journalists themselves, far from recognizing this problem, continue to admire brilliant Glass-style scene-painting, even as they condemn the fabrications it made possible. Modern journalists worship the craftsman who can evoke settings and characters with a few deft sentences, turning an otherwise unremarkable story into irresistible reader-bait. Witness New York Times journalist Rick Bragg, who made a career out of such stories, gently (if somewhat condescendingly) sketching the rural American South and its honest, simple, hardworking folk--until he was fired, in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, for letting stringers do his legwork for him, and applying his magic pen to places he'd in fact barely seen. Some commentators certainly criticized his exploitation of uncredited apprentices. But none denied his writing skill, or questioned its value to his newspaper. All that was asked of him was that he 'fess up and give at least partial credit to the people who did his actual reporting for him.

Of course, in these days of wire-service and cable-channel commoditization of hard news, and (if I may say so myself) bloggers providing high-quality thought-provoking commentary and analysis for free, about the only thing journalists can market themselves with anymore--apart from their deeply ambiguous, mutually compromising relationships with leakers--is their polished writing. And so they milk their skills for all they're worth, celebrating their most accomplished storytellers--until one of them turns out to be, well, just a bit too much of a storyteller.

When Michael Kelly died while reporting from Iraq during the recent war there, he was lionized by his former colleagues--not for his legendary devotion to the truth, or his deep insight into the topics he covered, but rather (understandably) for his personal warmth and kindness and (more worryingly) for his "incandescent" writing and "unparalleled gift for editing prose". It was also mentioned in passing that Kelly's editorship at the New Republic was less than entirely successful--tactfully eliding the point that its legacy included Stephen Glass' blossoming career as a writer of powerfully compelling falsehoods. Perhaps now, when the Stephen Glass story has returned to public attention, it's time to consider the possibility that Kelly's great strength and his great failure may not have been entirely unrelated.

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