Ethics in Journalism Tested in ‘Shattered Glass’

Glass PosterSome of you might know (most likely the people who bothered to click on my bio) that I’m a journalism major.  With a love of writing and mass media, I figured it would be a good field for me to get into.  I’m just starting out though and I have a lot to learn.  In my one semester of being a journalism student, I’ve picked up on at least a few things though.  For example, I know about how epic Woodward and Bernstein are.  That’s right, guys.  I sat through All the President’s Men a few months ago and you know what?  It wasn’t bad.  I know about problems some reporters face on the job – some of them in particular being ethics.  I know all about Janet Cooke‘s whole ordeal with fabricating a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.

But up until this week, I’d never heard of Stephen Glass, a reporter that at least partially (or sometimes fully) fabricated 27 of his 41 stories for The National Republic.  While he wasn’t exactly winning Pulitzers like Cooke, I thought this was kind of a big deal.  Today in class we got to watch the 2004 movie, Shattered Glass, based on his time at The National Republic.

Since this is based on a true story, I’ll lay the facts down for you right now.  Glass studied at the University of Pennsylvania where he worked for the student newspaper.  In 1995, after graduating, he started working at The National Republic, a well-known liberal magazine.  Now throughout his time working there, Glass was under fire on several occasions for supposed falsehoods in articles like “Don’t You D.A.R.E.” and “Spring Breakdown.”  But the magazine stuck by him and rigorously defended him.

It wasn’t until May of 1998, when he had become an associate editor, that Glass was finally caught.  During that time, the reporter had written a piece titled “Hack Heaven” about a 15-year-old computer hacker who managed to hack his way into Jukt Micronics’, a supposed large California software company, computer system.  As the story told, the boy, Ian Restil, placed pictures of naked women on each computer.  The software company responded by hiring Restill as a security consultant.  The only problem with this story is that it’s totally fabricated.

Adam Penenburg, a reporter for Forbes, did some investigating and found no evidence that Jukt Micronics, Ian Restil, or the supposed hacker convention that the meeting between Jukt and Restill took place at existed.  Initially TNR editor Charles Lane stuck by Glass’ side when his story came into question.  Glass struggled to fabricate information to satisfy questioning Lane and Penenburg.  He even went as far as to make a fake website for Jukt Micronics in addition to setting up a fake outgoing voicemail for George Sims, a supposed executive at Jukt.

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Lane eventually learned that the the conference room in the hotel where Restil and Jukt apparently met was closed on the day that Glass had identified the meeting took place.  Lane fired Glass after learning that he had a brother at Stanford, coming to the conclusion that Glass had his brother pose as George Sims and speak to Lane over the phone.

So, unlike All the President’s Men, this is a sad story, isn’t it?  It’s about the downfall of a beloved reporter, coworker, and friend.  In today’s culture, it’s not uncommon to have an anti-hero, someone who doesn’t have any heroic qualities but we root for anyway because they’re portrayed in such a way that we truly feel for them.  Take Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Catch Me if You Cana movie about a con artist.  He lies and deceits people, but we still root for him.

I think it would have been easy to take said approach.  It’s definitely hard portraying an unlikable person at the forefront.  The thing is, Shattered Glass does everything right in that it does something completely different.  Sure, Stephen Glass, played by Hayden Christensen in the film, comes off as a pretty likable, approachable guy.  He’s loved by his coworkers and has good relationships with almost all of them.  Former TNR editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) loves him and stands by him in everything.  Even the new editor, Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), the person that everyone loves to hate, is at least somewhat fond of him.  His coworkers Caitlin and Amy (Chloë Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey) look up to him.

But there’s never really enough information given about Glass to make a big connection with him.  It would be easy to portray his family life, or his life as an adolescent, and maybe even romantic relationships he’s had in order to get a feel for who he is – to understand why he would fabricate all those stories.  But instead, the movie plays out like you’re watching a mask slowly slip off of Glass throughout the entire feature.  It isn’t until toward the end that you really truly understand what a facade the man has been putting on the entire time.  It’s never revealed that Glass has fabricated “Hack Heaven” or any other story for that matter.  For all the audience knows  throughout the film, Glass is just an honest reporter doing his job.  The thing is, though, people aren’t always what they seem.  Charles “Chuck” Lane, the editor that everyone’s hated, is really the good guy trying to get to the truth to protect the magazine.

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In fact, Peter Sarasgaard’s performance as Lane is definitely the standout of the bunch.  You’d figure that Hayden Christensen as Glass – much like DiCaprio portraying Frank Abagnale – would make the most impact on an audience, but by time you reach the end of the movie, Sarasgaard has won you over as Lane.

The film covers what needs to be done when you’re placed in tough places.  Even though Glass was liked by his coworkers and at the time seemed like an asset to TNR, there comes consequences with your actions.  Glass’ colleagues had clouded judgment because of who they thought Glass was as a person.  They didn’t question his actions or his integrity.  Lane finally manages to get his staff to take off the rose tinted glasses and start looking into Glass as he actually is – a suspicious character.

I think this film definitely proves that the main character – the person that we’re supposed to identify with in a story – is not always the person we want to make them out to be and that sometimes the supposed villain in the story is right.  It teaches that sometimes you’re going to be put in some tough spots, but you should be compelled to do the right thing, even if some people might hate you for it at the time.  Because in the long run, despite the fact that it’s a lot of times hard to do, it’s definitely the better option.  Shattered Glass is not your typical “based on a true story” film.  It definitely puts an interesting spin on things in the way that characters are portrayed, and it instills the need for ethics and morale in not just journalism, but also everyday life.

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