Fool me once

I was one of the magazine editors deceived by journalist Stephen Glass during his reign of error and lies. His fictionalized memoir, "The Fabulist," is supposed to be an apology. I don't buy it.

Topics: Books,

Fool me once

About a week ago, someone close to Stephen Glass, someone I like and respect, e-mailed me with a request: Glass wanted my address. He wanted to write me a letter of apology.

I was slightly stunned. Five years have passed since Glass had concocted facts, quotes and sources in articles he’d written for me at George magazine. But even a late apology is better than none, and I have always wanted to forgive Glass his transgressions. It’s no fun to live with a wound that never heals. It’s just that without an apology, forgiveness was hard; I’m no saint, able to transcend the misdeeds done to me without at least some effort on the part of the miscreant. Now, at last, Glass had apparently decided that it was time to make amends, and I welcomed it.

Then I read that Stephen Glass was about to publish a novel called “The Fabulist” — and would appear on “60 Minutes” to promote his book, promising to explain what had led him to deceive me and so many others he worked for and wrote about. And the rush of emotions that I’d felt five years before roared right back: frustration, regret, anger, suspicion. Could I trust that Glass really wanted to apologize? Or was he merely trying to silence a potential critic before his novel’s publication?

To really understand why the story of Steve Glass still causes such pain, you have to know that making up facts was only part of what Glass did to his colleagues. We opened ourselves to him, and in turn he probed our minds, pinpointing our vulnerabilities, our vanities, our prejudices. He exploited the worst in us and betrayed the best. And then he just vanished — until now. Now he’s back, promoting a tale of fall and redemption.

I first met Glass sometime in 1997. Based in New York, I was in charge of assigning Washington stories for George, and part of my job was to scout D.C. for new writers. It’s actually a tough job; the city contains many fine reporters and polemicists, but few gifted feature writers. Washington generates little color in its culture or its prose. Steve Glass, however, was a splash of exuberance against a backdrop of gray monuments and gray newsprint. His pieces in the New Republic were characterized by the wonderfully oddball anecdote — young Republicans behaving obscenely in a hotel room, financiers who’d created a shrine to Alan Greenspan, cult worshippers of Paul Tsongas. Somehow, Glass discovered people who acted like inside-the-Beltway residents imagined normal Americans behaved. Wacky, loony, real people.

But his articles weren’t always lighthearted. The article that first attracted Steve attention was about a young black man holding up a D.C. cabbie, a crime that happened to take place while Steve was in the taxi. For Harper’s, he wrote an essay about a summer job as a phone psychic, suggesting that the psychic hot line had particular appeal to blacks. In Steve’s portrayal, they came across as more pathetically needy for psychic advice than whites were, and more gullible too. The piece had a seductive appeal to neo-liberal sympathies; these hot lines duped poor, uneducated minorities just as much as, say, lotteries did.

I assigned Steve three stories, two of which George published. One was about the power of celebrity lobbyists. I wanted Steve to show that celebrities were effective — the story wasn’t a story if they weren’t — and he came through, digging up a Virginia political consultant who’d studied this very question. According to this source, legislation supported by celebrities was 10 times more likely to be voted into law than that which wasn’t. Steve had found the money shot statistic; it made the story not just entertaining, but important.

Next, Glass profiled Bill Clinton’s friend, power lawyer Vernon Jordan. The timing was right after the outbreak of the Lewinsky scandal, and I was anxious to dig up some dirt on Jordan, who was mired in Clinton’s shenanigans but doing a masterly job of foiling the press. Once more, Steve scored. He described Jordan pacing anxiously at his law firm, wearing out the carpet underneath an oil painting of himself. A great image; Steve said he got it from colleagues of Jordan’s who wished to remain anonymous. Glass also discovered several women who claimed — anonymously as well — that Jordan was a boorish lech. “I always wear a bra around Jordan,” one woman admitted. “Otherwise he stares at my tits.”

The whole thing made my boss, John Kennedy, queasy. When he read the Jordan piece, he pressed me about whether the ribald details were really true. I assured him that they must be; Steve Glass was a good reporter. So, against his better judgment, John signed off on the piece.

Steve, meanwhile, was getting more and more buzz, writing more and more freelance pieces. Rolling Stone wanted him; so did GQ; even the prestigious New York Times Magazine was signing him up. How did he do it? I once asked Steve. How did he find the time to do all this reporting and writing and go to Georgetown Law School at night?

His answer explained everything. He had insomnia, he told me. He only needed three, maybe four hours of sleep a night. From midnight to 4 a.m., while his girlfriend slept, Steve would write. It was the perfect time. No one to bother you. He could really get a lot done. I wish I had insomnia like that, I thought. Think of how productive I could be!

Steve’s third story for George was a profile of conservative editor and writer John Podhoretz, who was reputed to be a crotchety boss. Glass confirmed it; he unearthed a group of ex-Podhoretz wage slaves who convened at a D.C. bar every week to swap horror stories about their despised former overseer. Their yarns were pretty juicy. Podhoretz, I thought, must be a real jerk.

The story was a little rough, though. Steve would have to do another draft. But that was never a problem; Steve was a delight to edit. I’d call him about a manuscript, and as soon as I said hello he’d blurt, “You hate it, don’t you? It’s terrible, I know. I’m so sorry. I know. It’s awful. Just kill it. Really. I won’t mind.”

He was disarming, like a little kid who’s pissed off at himself; you couldn’t help reaching out, reassuring him that everything would be OK. “Steve, it’s great,” I’d say. “It just needs a little tweaking.”

“You really like it?” he would ask, his voice brightening. “Really?”

I would chuckle gently and feel quite the sage — which, of course, Steve had surely discerned was exactly what I wanted to feel like. He had a way of making you feel good about yourself. That was one reason why everybody liked Steve Glass. And he told you what you wanted to hear. Steve knew that I was irritated by a steady stream of catty items the New Republic had run about George, and so he fed me a steady stream of bilious gossip about TNR. This editor was a pompous bore; no one took that writer seriously. I felt dirty for enjoying the gossip, but I never asked him to stop dishing it.

Before I could reach Steve to discuss the Podhoretz piece, we all found out how he had been getting such great stuff. He was making it up. A Forbes.com journalist named Adam Penenberg tried to follow up on a Glass story in the New Republic, only to find that none of it was real. In short order, TNR editor Chuck Lane fired Glass, and subsequent investigations showed that Steve’s fabrications went way back, numbering in the dozens. At George, the Jordan piece simply blew apart like a dandelion in a strong wind. The day the news broke, I did some hasty rechecking of facts. In Glass’ notes, I found the names of his lawyer sources, the ones Glass had asked us not to call because they feared talking to anyone but him. A bewildered night operator at Vernon Jordan’s law firm informed me that there were no lawyers there by that name. The Podhoretz profile was also bunk. We fired Glass, too.

Our head fact checker, a hardworking young man who took his job seriously, who needed his job — the kind of guy working his way up the journalistic ladder whom Glass had nimbly leapfrogged over — was distraught, terrified that he would get fired but even more devastated because to him, the idea of truth in reporting mattered, and Glass’ conduct was something he simply could not fathom.

A day or so after losing his job, Glass returned to his parents’ home outside Chicago and simply disappeared. I was among those frantically trying to find out what was going on — the details were still murky — and to ask which facts in our stories might be false. There were legal issues to consider, apologies to write; we needed his help. Only once did I get through. In a fragile, quavering voice, Steve hinted to me that his parents feared for his life. “Someone’s with me all the time, I can’t talk now,” he said, and hung up.

I have never talked with him since.

Rechecking Steve’s work, painstaking though it was, proved to be the easy part of picking up the pieces. Much harder was the soul-searching Steve’s betrayal prompted. How had he played me so exquisitely, duped me so utterly? I imagined the contempt Steve must have felt as I praised him for scoops he knew were transparently fake. How could he not lose respect for someone so easily fooled? And fooled because Steve saw what was shallow and weak in me — my editorial vanity; my silly anger at the New Republic; my salacious desire to get something on Vernon Jordan.

I had to work to acknowledge the depths of my responsibility for publishing lies. It was painful, but I hope I’m a better journalist and a better person for it. Steve Glass, however, found his way to that dark spot in my soul with unnerving facility. He discovered it and then he exploited it. Just as he did with other editors — and thousands of readers — when portraying a black thug robbing a cabbie, or a black woman falling prey to a pseudo-psychic, or a denizen of red state America insipid enough to belong to the Church of George Herbert Walker Bush.

And this is really the main reason why those of us who worked with Steve find it so hard to forgive him. Instead of using his gifts to try to make the world a better place, Steve mined the crudest raw material of our fallible human natures. And then he put it all on paper, where it could inflict tangible, long-lasting harm on people who hadn’t done anything wrong, and ran away.

You see why forgiving Steve Glass doesn’t come easy.

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So it was with both optimism and trepidation that I turned to “The Fabulist.” Some who knew Glass are outraged that Simon & Schuster has published the book, as if Glass shouldn’t even get the opportunity to plead his case. Having once myself come under fire for publishing a book about my days at George, I sympathized with Steve in this regard. In his case, I thought, If we believe in redemption, don’t we have to permit its means? Glass had every right to publish this book, and Simon & Schuster did nothing wrong in publishing it. The question I wanted to know is, Had Glass used his opportunity wisely?

“The Fabulist” is surely one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It comes wrapped in minimalist packaging: a simple white cover with black type that reads, “The Fabulist — A Novel — Stephen Glass.” It seems to suggest that the book is the plain, unvarnished, no-bullshit story, and the only baggage it carries is that which the reader brings to it. It also lacks an author photo, another cryptic touch. Whoever heard of a first novel without a picture of the writer? A Simon & Schuster spokeswoman told me that the omission was “a style choice. We wanted to let the book speak for itself.” Maybe. But to those of us who know Steve, this all feels painfully familiar, as if “The Fabulist” is not merely a book, but a stratagem. Like Steve himself — or, I should say, like Steve when I knew him — it is coy, flirtatious, manipulative even as it pretends to candor. The whiteness is a blank canvas upon which to project our own biases, just as Steve was.

Inside, things only get stranger. “The Fabulist” begins with a prefatory note from Glass: “I was fired in 1998 from my job as a writer at The New Republic — for having fabricated dozens of magazine articles. I deeply regret my misconduct, and the pain it caused.” But while the following novel is “inspired by certain events in my life,” it should not be confused with nonfiction. Like the cover says, it’s a novel.

But it sure reads like real life. “The Fabulist” tells the story of an up-and-coming young journalist named, yes, Stephen Glass. Our antihero works at the Washington Weekly, a doppelgänger New Republic, described as a political magazine whose specialty is the hatchet job. “They used the source’s own words to hang him,” Glass writes. (They?) “It was assisted suicide, not murder.” But it is Glass who is hanged by his own words when he is discovered to have published fiction posing as nonfiction (this in a work of nonfiction posing as fiction). He is promptly fired by his boss, Robert Underwood, an obvious stand-in for Chuck Lane. Soon after, Glass’ girlfriend dumps him. Chased by bloodthirsty media vultures, he flies home to his parents, who love him regardless and fear that he is going to commit suicide.

Up to this point, the story, as far as I know, nearly exactly parallels reality — which raises the obvious question why Glass didn’t simply write a memoir. Did he think that a novel would sell better? That no one would ever again believe his nonfiction? Or are there things in “The Fabulist” for which he does not want to take responsibility?

Eventually, Glass returns to “Jeffersonville,” Va. — Arlington, one presumes. In search of love, he tries to date a stripper and visits a rub-and-tug massage parlor with his brother. This Glass may be spineless, but he’s impressively virile in the sack. His real embrace, however, lies elsewhere. Glass takes a job in a video store — see how far he has fallen! — receives spiritual instruction from a rabbi who forgives without asking questions, and meets a girl who loves him without asking questions. But in time, Glass realizes that Washington will never forgive him. And so he heads up 1-95 to New York — and a new fictional life.

I suspect that there is considerably more imagination applied to the reconstruction than to the fall. For one thing, Glass omits the fact that he finished law school at Georgetown and worked at a D.C. firm. Is this because a law degree isn’t the stuff of exciting fiction? Or because real-life Steve Glass looks somewhat less pathetic — and consequently harder to feel sorry for, harder to forgive — if we know that, actually, he didn’t lose everything.

Is “The Fabulist” interesting for nonmedia addicts? It does contain sporadic moments of clever invention. The story that leads to Glass’ exposure is about “angry lottery winners” who’ve become so addicted to spending their winnings, they plunge into debt. Much later, Glass’ new girlfriend turns out to have a sordid past of her own; she’s a gambling addict. But one expects such clever touches from Steve Glass; they’re just the sort of thing he used to make up in his articles. I suspect that those with more remove from his tale than I have will find this all a bit thin gruel.

Which leads us to the real question: Is it a successful apologia? Glass seems to hope so; the book is peppered with apologies. “What I did was a terrible mistake …” Or: “My only purpose here is to answer your question … and perhaps to ask your forgiveness …” In an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, Glass professed that he hopes his former colleagues will see the book as “an exercise in remorse and redemption.”

It doesn’t help Glass’ case that he devotes at least as many words to excoriating other members of the press as he does to self-flagellation. He portrays the New Republic as a cynical, venal institution read only by senior citizens (another group Glass has fun with). Chuck Lane is presented as an insufferable dullard pathetically desperate to build himself up by tearing Glass down. I don’t know Lane well and have no idea whether he fits these descriptions, but for Glass to smear Lane (and several other ripped-from-the-bylines characters) and then protest, “Hey, it’s only fiction,” is cowardly — as cowardly as running away was in the first place. Taking responsibility is a burden he wants to shed before he has even shouldered it.

The theme of hyperambition posing as righteous anger is one that Glass applies to the media in general. It’s not that we were genuinely upset by his actions; we just want to get a good article out of Glass. “They’re going to write about me, and write about me viciously,” he says. There’s a grain of truth in this — a very small grain. Glass misses the larger point. We were genuinely upset, and because of that, we will write articles about what happened. This is what writers do. We write because we believe that we have something to say — rather than something to make up.

Glass may think the media sleazy, but at least, he suggests, ordinary Americans have their priorities straight. “Most people, people who are not journalists, care about their jobs, their families, and that’s what they should care about,” Glass writes. And so he gets along extremely well with people of color, like the Latino janitor at the Washington Weekly (whom he knows only by a demeaning nickname) and the borderline mentally retarded, like the video store employees he manages (manipulates?) better than anyone has before him. (“Amazingly, they had managed to rent two videos in my absence … “) Coming from a man who used to parody those same ordinary Americans in the pages of an elite magazine — and whose book contains more such parodies — this newfound appreciation for Babbitry takes some nerve. Or maybe it’s something else. Glass’ ability to apologize while simultaneously insisting that his wrongs were trivial; his sneering portrayal of journalists even as he begs our forgiveness; his insistence that his book is fiction even as he asks you to believe that his repentance is real; all this goes beyond chutzpah into self-delusion. Part of Steve Glass wants to give the world the finger; an equal part just wants to be hugged.

In the end, the more Glass’ apologies pile up, the more perfunctory they feel. It’s as if Glass knows this is what’s expected of him before he can progress through the cultural cycle of exposure, exile, repentance and rehabilitation. Unfortunately for the author, we still expect that repentance to be sincere — and the very act of apologizing in a novel makes Glass’ integrity suspect. Even Glass hints that his apologies are pointless. “You’ll never be sorry enough for the journalists,” Glass’ heroic brother tells him. (Glass paints characters positively in exact proportion to the degree they unconditionally forgive him.) “You’ll never win them back and get into their good graces again, not in this life. You could work harder at good deeds than Mother Teresa, and you’ll still be the fabricator.”

It’s safe to say that Glass hasn’t tested the veracity of that assertion. But as one of those potential forgivers, I’d like to take him up on it. What would it take for me to forgive Steve Glass? Nothing so saintly, actually. He’ll probably need to do more than just write me a letter. He could start by actually apologizing to everyone who was ever hurt by what he wrote and what he did — individually. In person, if possible. Maybe he could pay back the money he accepted from magazines for the stories he made up. By defrauding his employers, Glass essentially stole that money — and with this book, he’s compounding the original theft. He could donate some cash to the Columbia School of Journalism for a course or a lecture series on journalistic ethics. To say that there’s no point in even trying seems terribly convenient.

Earning forgiveness isn’t impossible, but it is hard. For forgiveness to mean anything, it should come hard. But even now, five years after his banishment, Glass just doesn’t want to do the work. He may call himself a novelist instead of a journalist, but has Steve Glass truly changed?

Richard Blow is the author of "American SonA Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.," and is currently a book about Harvard University.

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