Lessons From Serial Fabulist Stephen Glass On How Not To Reboot A Career

The writer who made up stories for The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Harper's and others (then tried to lie his way out) is fighting to become a lawyer in California. To the journalist who busted his original lies, Glass's tactics sound eerily familiar.

Not long ago an NYU journalism student interviewed me for a class project. His topic was “almost famous people” and he told me I was the ideal subject. While I have a smidgen of fame for my role in helping to unmask serial fabricator Stephen Glass, which led to Steve Zahn portraying me in an indie movie, it's not like my name lands me a hard-to-get reservation at a hot new restaurant or past a nightclub's velvet rope. On Wikipedia my entry is a "stub." My brush with fame does result in the odd email or two when Shattered Glass airs on late-night cable or is shown as a cautionary tale to journalism classes. Sometimes I'm congratulated on my scoop, as if it happened last week. More often a high school or college student researching a paper on ethics requests an interview.

I’ve never met Stephen Glass but over the years have obliquely followed his goings and doings. After The New Republic fired him in 1998, Glass graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown Law School. He passed the New York State bar exam in 2000 but wasn't granted a license to practice law because he had committed "acts of moral turpitude." In 2003 Jann Wenner assigned him an article for Rolling Stone on Canada's drug laws. Glass also received a $190,000 advance for The Fabulist, a novel about a young journalist caught fabricating stories, and promoted it with a TV blitz, appearing on 60 Minutes and a slew of other news shows. Which prompted Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor, to observe, “Even when it comes to reckoning with his own sins, he is still incapable of nonfiction.”

Despite the excessive promotion the book fared poorly--it sold fewer than 5,000 copies--debunking the notion there's no such thing as bad publicity. The following year Glass moved to California and passed that state’s bar exam, but in 2009 California bar examiners rejected his application, questioning whether he had truly rehabilitated himself. Around that time Billy Ray, Shattered Glass's screenwriter/director, told me he was waiting on line for a movie in Los Angeles when he spotted Glass working as a street performer with Un-Cabaret. Later he took a job at a Beverly Hills law firm as either a paralegal or law clerk, depending on whose account you believe. (I'd ask Glass, but he hasn't returned my call for this piece.) 

Now Glass is in the news again. His battle to join the legal profession has wound through the appeals process, with Glass winning two separate victories: A State Bar Court judge overturned the Committee of Bar Examiners' decision to block Glass; then a three-judge review panel also decided 2-1 in Glass's favor. Recently the California Supreme Court opted to hear the case, and a ruling should be forthcoming. Read all the details in a meticulously researched column by Jack Shafer of Reuters.

When I first learned of Glass’s quest to join the legal profession, I thought, Christ, it's been 13 years. And, since when does lying disqualify someone from being a lawyer? Let the guy earn a living. Leave it to Glass to disgrace himself in one mistrusted profession only to apply to another. (Gallup polls consistently rank reporters and lawyers as only slightly more favorable to car salesmen and members of Congress.) After reading Shafer's piece, however, I changed my mind. Few words are as dangerous as, "I'm no psychologist, but..." it occurred to me the strategies Glass adopted to fight his ban are eerily similar to the ones I confronted all those years ago.

Travel in my way-back machine to May 1998, when, after three full days of dissecting every word in Glass’s now famous story, “Hack Heaven,” I was interrogating him over the phone along with then-Forbes.com managing editor, Kambiz Foroohar. Every time we questioned another "fact" we could not verify, Glass spun another lie. As I wrote two days later, “It's tough proving a negative. It is even tougher proving that something or someone does not exist.” And Glass did everything he could to make harder. He concocted phony business cards and voicemails, a fake website for his fake company Jukt Micronics, and faux sources to vouch for his fabricated sources. Instead of coming clean he copped to lesser crimes if he thought it would divert us from learning far worse. After we eviscerated each and every fact in his story he finally admitted to being an egregiously sloppy reporter who didn’t check facts and unintentionally misled readers and editors. He might have been duped, he claimed. Perhaps some malevolent hackers took advantage of him. At the same time New Republic editor Chuck Lane was fending off an insurrection within the magazine, with Glass trying to turn staff against him.

Now, look how Glass has handled his quest to gain admittance to both New York and California’s bar.

According to Shafer, who pored through court documents (read the piece; it’s really good), Glass blamed his ethical lapses on his tormented childhood. Even when addressing legal authorities years after his comeuppance, he couldn’t resist stretching the truth. When he petitioned New York State's Bar, Glass claimed he worked with the magazines he wrote for to identify his lies but this was false. Later Glass said he meant to say he offered to work with the publications through counsel.

Initially he admitted to fabricating in whole or part 23 stories but didn’t furnish a complete list of tainted stories until 2009--11 years after he was caught when he was, as Shafer put it, "under the crosshairs of the California bar." His revised list includes 42 articles he published in The New Republic, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Policy Review, and the now-defunct George. Glass didn’t pen most of the 100-plus letters of apology he wrote until after he graduated from law school and knew he would need to show he was fit to practice law. (Yet in his thinly veiled novel he accused them of stabbing him in the back, making him, once again, the victim.) Glass lined up 22 friendly witnesses to testify in a 10-day administrative trial in 2010, including former New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, all of whom claimed Glass had rehabilitated himself.

Both in 1998 and in the present Glass has refrained from telling the whole truth. It took him more than a decade to provide a complete list of articles he had fabricated, and only when pressed. He hid behind obfuscation when caught claiming he had worked with publications whose reputations he had besmirched to identify his published falsehoods and blamed his harsh childhood for fueling his compulsion to lie. When he was supposed to write fact he wrote fiction; with his novel he wrote fiction and assumed the role of victim when he could have written fact and told us what happened. Never has he fully come clean. Are these the actions of a man who has rehabilitated himself?

Even disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich, who coincidentally also hails from Illinois, said, "I am responsible. I caused it all. I’m not blaming anybody. I was the governor, and I should have known better. And I am just so incredibly sorry." Take his remonstrations for what they’re worth, of course. Blagojevich said this when he was pleading for a lighter sentence. The judge didn’t believe him, sentencing him to 14 years in prison.

Should we believe that a man who wove such a complex web of lies has rehabilitated himself and won't lie again? Should we even care? California State Bar Judge Catherine D. Purcell thinks so. In a dissenting opinion in July's 2-1 decision in favor of Glass, she wrote: "[I]f Glass were to fabricate evidence in legal matters as readily and effectively as he falsified material for magazine articles, the harm to the public and the profession would be immeasurable." Perhaps we should consult Glass's fiction for clues lurking in his conscious and subconscious minds. From The Fabulist (which also happens to be his stage name in the California comedy troupe): "I am conscious that some of my colleagues and friends, present and former, will be suspicious of my motives in offering this account. They will see it as just one more lie; an eleventh-hour, last gasp, back-from-the-dead effort to spin things my way again. And, on one level, it is. Nothing would make me so happy as your liking me once more..." Time will tell whether his obsessive need to be liked will once again drive Glass to distort reality.

In the end, though, Stephen Glass isn’t all that important and neither is whether he can or cannot practice law in California. Like me, he’s merely one of the legions of "almost famous" people that inhabit the world. Instead of a stub on Wikipedia, however, his entry is almost entirely devoted to the scandal. That’s something he'll have to contend with for the rest of his life. 

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.

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