Hacker heaven, editors' hell

The New Republic's bogus article reveals a chasm of cluelessness.

By Scott Rosenberg
Published May 14, 1998 8:18AM (EDT)

The piece in the New Republic opened with a you-are-there rush, so vivid as to be screenplay-ready:

Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, is throwing a tantrum. "I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Man comic [book] number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy, and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!" Over and over again, the boy, who is wearing a frayed Cal Ripken Jr. T-shirt, is shouting his demands. Across the table, executives from a California software firm called Jukt Micronics are listening -- and trying ever so delicately to oblige. "Excuse me, sir," one of the suits says, tentatively, to the pimply teenager. "Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting you, sir. We can arrange more money for you ..."

It's a great lead -- a little too great, perhaps. Despite the attempt at verisimilitude (down to that bracketed word "book" in the quotation, suggesting the author's dedication to word-for-word fidelity), the scene's "wow" factor alone makes it suspect: It too perfectly fulfills pop-culture clichis of mad teen hackers holding corporations for ransom. Reality rarely matches stereotype so mathematically.

If this story had landed on my desk as a freelance submission, my questions for the writer -- based on Paragraph 1 alone -- would have been: "What an embarrassing scene for this company. Why on earth did they let a reporter sit in on it?" Then I'd have wondered why I'd never heard of the oddly named company, why there was no evidence of its existence anywhere on the Web and why a software company had used the word "Micronics" -- more often associated with motherboards and hardware -- in its name.

It turns out that the article, "Hack Heaven," written by Stephen Glass and published in the May 18 New Republic, is full of such red flags -- including, most outrageously, names of organizations and legislative proposals (the "Center for Interstate Online Investigations," the "Computer Security Center," the "Uniform Computer Security Act") that would raise the eyebrows of any knowledgeable technology reporter or editor.

None of these organizations exists, of course. Neither does Jukt Micronics. Or Ian Restil. The story is an utter fabrication -- as an editor at the Forbes Digital Tool Web site, Adam Penenberg, discovered last week and reported Monday. In the course of his research, Penenberg contacted New Republic editor Charles Lane, who soon thereafter fired Glass, an associate editor at the magazine.

Media coverage of the story -- in the Washington Post, for example -- suggests that Glass is an ambitious 25-year-old writer who'd overextended himself with high-profile freelance assignments and was bound to "blow up." Previous articles by Glass have now come under suspicion as well.

I can't say I feel much sympathy for poor Glass and his over-booked assignments for high-paying or prestigious publications like Rolling Stone, Harper's and the New York Times Magazine -- where editors presumably fell in love with his great lead paragraphs. Fabricating stories for maximum "juiciness" is a loathsome enterprise. Beyond bamboozling the public, it also devalues the work of more diligent writers who actually depend on mundane reporting for their stories -- but whose articles, forced to conform to the less-than-cinematic nature of reality, may come off as pallid next to such feverish concoctions.

In the Post story, former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan asks, "What makes someone do such a thing? And how can we trust anyone? And what could we have done to prevent this?"

I'd humbly suggest to Sullivan, Lane and the New Republic that preventing such fraud is a relatively simple matter: If you want to run stories about the fascinating but labyrinthine world of hackers, make sure you have an editor or two around who understands it at least well enough to catch blatant lies and fictitious organizations. Experience within a specific field gives journalists decent noses to sniff out fishy tales from bona fide facts -- that's what got Forbes' editors suspicious in the first place.

If an online publication of note had succumbed to a similarly wacky fraud in the offline world -- say, if News.com or Feed (or Salon) had published a story about bribery at some federal regulatory agency that turned out not to exist -- you can well imagine the outcry. There! Proof that Web journalism has no standards!

I wouldn't reflexively turn the tables on the print press, though. Bad luck and a determined con artist (Glass reportedly devised both a fake corporate site on America Online and a bogus voice-mail message for Jukt Micronics) can trip up any publication, in print or on the Web.

But the next time you hear some pundit proclaim that the online press is inherently inferior to its print and broadcast predecessors, remember the Glass saga. Like previous goofs, such as Pierre Salinger's gullibility over TWA Flight 800 reports that had circulated and been debunked on the Net, this latest incident suggests that mainstream journalism still holds pockets of ignorance when it comes to technology and Internet coverage. Certainly, U.S. newspapers and magazines have come a long way over the last two years, particularly by hiring reporters who have a deeper understanding of the Internet. But the New Republic's gaffe with "Hack Heaven" makes it plain that many publications still have a long way to go.

The online medium does have one great advantage over print when it comes to such embarrassments: You can yank a bad story from a Web site in a second. (In fact, all evidence of the article is now gone from the New Republic's own site.) I'm sure the New Republic's editors wish they could similarly erase "Hack Heaven" from the print edition, but it's still sitting on newsstands this week for gawkers to titter over.

Fans of Word, the long-running Web magazine that was shut down by its owners in March, were relieved two weeks ago to read that Word had found an angel to buy it: a Houston-based food processor named Zapata. Zapata, founded as an oil company by George Bush in 1953, is changing its name to Zap -- and wants to get on the Net in a big way.

Its desire is so burning, in fact, that the company took out a display ad in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal reading, in bold headline type, "ZAPATA WILL BUY YOUR WEB SITE! Contact Avie Glazer, President & CEO," followed by a phone number and e-mail address.

Who knows what other ailing or defunct Web sites Word may find itself sharing owners with. Zap's approach is certainly unorthodox, even oafish -- but I bet Glazer gets a ton of responses.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------