At 25, Stephen Glass was the most sought-after young reporter in the nation’s capital, producing knockout articles for magazines ranging from The New Republic to Rolling Stone. Trouble was, he made things up—sources, quotes, whole stories—in a breathtaking web of deception that emerged as the most sustained fraud in modern journalism.
Nothing in Charles Lane’s 15 years of journalism, not the bitter blood of Latin America, nor war in Bosnia, nor the difficult early days of his editorship of the fractious New Republic, could compare with this surreal episode. On the second Friday in May in the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in the Maryland suburb of Bethesda, near Washington, nothing less than the most sustained fraud in the history of modern journalism was unraveling.
No one in Lane’s experience, no one, had affected him in the eerie manner of Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old associate editor at The New Republicand a white-hot rising star in Washington journalism. It wasn’t just the relentlessness of the young reporter. Or the utter conviction with which Glass had presented work that Lane now feared was completely fabricated. It was the ingenuity of the con, the daring with which Glass had concocted his attention-getting creations, the subtle ease with which even now, as he attempted to clear himself, the strangely gifted kid created an impromptu illusion using makeshift details he had spied in the lobby just seconds earlier—a chair, a cocktail table, smoke from a cigarette.
It all seemed increasingly bizarre to Lane, who had brought Glass to the Hyatt, the supposed setting for one of those bogus stories, to see if the young man could explain it all away somehow. What was behind Glass’s behavior? Why did he do it? Lane didn’t know then that Stephen Glass had always been good at such risky business. Exceptionally good.
He didn’t know that, in 1990, as a high-school senior in the North Shore Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Stephen Glass—a theater-lover—had served as a technical director of Stunts, a group of talented students who produced their own work. (One production involved a Washington journalist caught up in a web of conspiracy and corruption.) The yearbook pictured Glass, directing the movements of the cast through a headset. “Stephen Glass,” read the caption, “peruses the script, ready to call the scenes, sets, and props.” Not that many years later, Glass would present other elaborate orchestrations of made-up scenes and characters, this time passing them off as journalism.
During his last year in high school, Glass also participated in an activity designed to encourage rapid and inventive thinking called Adventures of the Mind. At Highland Park High—a rigorous, competitive school where it wasn’t unusual for 5 percent of the senior class to be National Merit semifinalists—Adventures of the Mind drew the “mental giants” who loved the game of designing scenarios with creative flair. They were asked to prepare a musical in 15 minutes. Or come up, rapid-fire, with clever commercial slogans. Or act out raising a chair off the ground to see if it would float. It was the perfect fodder for smart kids. “You start with an idea,” said Glass in the yearbook, “expand on that idea until it’s a reality. It makes you more aware of not only your own capabilities, but also exposes you to the different types of careers that are waiting for us after we graduate.”
Beneath the inventions of Stephen Glass there is his own story. People try to explain it now by citing the pressure he faced to perform, and it is true that he came from an environment in which there was brutal pressure to excel. Some stress the fact that Glass was working too much. And he was illogically, and even crazily, overextended. More tempting is the idea of seeing each of Glass’s articles, each act of manipulative, aggressive trickery, as a grander and more precariously improvised adventure of the mind.
The crisis had begun to escalate on that second Friday in May. Already, Lane was virtually certain that Glass was lying about the veracity of “Hack Heaven,” a story written for the May 18 issue that dealt with the phenomenon of a teenage computer hacker seeking to extort thousands of dollars from a vulnerable corporation. During the previous day, Lane had seen Glass, when confronted with questions about his story, respond not only with a barrage of faked material to support his piece but also with his own psychological weaponry. (Lane reconstructed his interactions with Glass during a six-hour taped interview for Vanity Fair in which he frequently referred to a memo that he privately kept of what took place.)
“Look, you’re not backing me up,” Glass had told Lane the night before. He had appeared wounded, almost outraged. But Glass was acting; he knew exactly what he had done. Every name, every company, virtually every single solitary detail—except Glass’s own byline—had been a product of the young man’s imagination. But there wasn’t the slightest acknowledgment. “I really feel hurt,” Lane remembers Glass telling him. “You know, Chuck, I just feel really attacked. And you’re my editor and you should be backing me up.”
He threw the 36-year-old Lane onto the defensive. Because this, after all, was Stephen Glass, the compelling wunderkind who had seeped inside the skins of editors not only atThe New Republic but also at Harper’s, George, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. This was the Stephen Glass who had so many different writing contracts that his income this year might well have reached $150,000 (including his $45,000 New Republic salary). This was the Stephen Glass whose stories had attracted the attention not just of Random House—his agent was trying to score a book deal—but of several screenwriters.
When unmasked, Stephen Glass was revealed as Washington journalism’s variation on Six Degrees of Separation. But before the revelation, this talented, smooth-cheeked, and painfully insecure boy had won over the world of magazines with the vigor of his youth and his equally alluring vulnerability. He had appeared, amid the self-centeredness of the capital city, as refreshingly flexible. “There are so many assholes in journalism, so many braggarts and arrogant jerks,” said Margaret Talbot, a senior editor at The New Republicwho worked with Glass. “Someone comes along who appears to have talent, is self-effacing to a fault, and is sweet and solicitous.”
He was hardly the first to make up stories. Janet Cooke had done it in 1980 in a Pulitzer Prize–winning piece for The Washington Post. Nik Cohn, 21 years after the fact, blithely admitted to having made up most of the New York story that inspired the film Saturday Night Fever. More recently, Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith was fired for making up parts of her columns. But none of these journalists approached the sheer calculation of Glass’s deceptions. He is the perfect expression of his time and place: an era is cresting in Washington; it is a time when fact and fiction are blurred not only by writers eager to score but also by presidents and their attorneys, spinmeisters and special prosecutors. From one perspective, Stephen Glass was a master parodist of his city’s shifting truths.
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The New Republic, after an investigation involving a substantial portion of its editorial staff, would ultimately acknowledge fabrications in 27 of the 41 bylined pieces that Glass had written for the magazine in the two-and-a-half-year period between December 1995 and May 1998. In Manhattan, John F. Kennedy Jr., editor of George, would write a personal letter to Vernon Jordan apologizing for Glass’s conjuring up two sources who had made juicy and emphatic remarks about the sexual proclivities of the presidential adviser and his boss. At Harper’s, Glass would be dismissed from his contract after a story he had written about phone psychics, which contained 13 first-name sources, could not be verified.
For those two and a half years, the Stephen Glass show played to a captivated audience; then the curtain abruptly fell. He got away with his mind games because of the remarkable industry he applied to the production of the false backup materials which he methodically used to deceive legions of editors and fact checkers. Glass created fake letterheads, memos, faxes, and phone numbers; he presented fake handwritten notes, fake typed notes from imaginary events written with intentional misspellings, fake diagrams of who sat where at meetings that never transpired, fake voice mails from fake sources. He even inserted fake mistakes into his fake stories so fact checkers would catch them and feel as if they were doing their jobs. He wasn’t, obviously, too lazy to report. He apparently wanted to present something better, more colorful and provocative, than mere truth offered.
It all worked because of his skill at creating incredibly complex scenes and also because of that accommodating personality. Glass was the guy always ready to lend a sympathetic ear to colleagues going through divorces or trying to juggle kids and careers. He was almost brutally self-flagellating about his own work and abilities—so much so that his co-workers felt protective. But Glass’s seeming insecurity hid guts of steel. He reacted to warning shots from his possible doubters with audacity; he simply enlarged his fictions. Glass stealthily warded off a Fortune reporter who couldn’t find a listing for an imaginary company Glass had written about. He avoided an intern from Harper’s who wanted the name of a software company that didn’t exist. He never responded to E-mail from a former New Republic colleague who asked for the name of the Las Vegas casino that took bets on whether a space shuttle would malfunction. (The casino existed only in Glass’s mind.) He even held his own during an embarrassing moment at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 1997 when a Wall Street Journal reporter asked him how long it had taken to make up one controversial article.
It worked because Michael Kelly, Chuck Lane’s predecessor at The New Republic, never wavered in his support for the cub reporter he had helped catapult into the big leagues. When confronted with two different accusations of fabrication in Glass’s work during a three-month period in 1997, Kelly responded not with a soul-searching interrogation of his protégé but, in one of the incidents, by dashing off angry and vitriolic letters to the offended parties. Kelly called one of them dishonest and labeled his complaint meritless, and told another that he owed Glass an apology.
Stephen Glass rode the fast curve of instant ordainment that encircles the celebrity age of the 90s; his reputation in the incestuous world of Washington magazine journalism exploded so exponentially after a few of his better-than-true stories that he could basically write anything and get away with it, regardless of the fact that his reporting almostalways uncovered the near incredible and was laden with shoddy sourcing. His reports described events which occurred at nebulous locations, and included quotes from idiosyncratic characters (with no last names mentioned) whose language suggested the street poetry of Kerouac and the psychological acuity of Freud. He had an odd, prurient eye for a department-store Santa with an erection and evangelists who liked getting naked in the woods. And nobody called his bluff. What finally brought Stephen Glass down was himself.
He kept upping the risk, enlarging the dimensions of his performance, going beyond his production of fake notes, a fake Web site, a fake business card, and memos by pulling his own brother into his fading act for a guest appearance. Clearly, he would have done anything to save himself.
“He wanted desperately to save his ass at the expense of anything,” said Chuck Lane. “He would have destroyed the magazine.”
The saga of Stephen Glass is wrenching, shameful, and sad. His actions are both destructive and self-destructive, and if there is an explanation for them, his family has chosen not to offer it. Repeated attempts to interview Stephen were rebuffed, and all his father, Jeffrey Glass, said in a phone conversation was this: “There’s a lot unsaid. You can do whatever you want to do. There’s no comment.”
‘I do trust you,” Chuck Lane said on that Thursday night when Stephen Glass had accused his editor of desertion. But by the next morning, on that second Friday in May, Lane was wavering.
Around nine a.m., Glass was questioned on a speaker phone by Lane and by two outsiders, editor Adam Penenberg and executive editor Kambiz Foroohar, from the on-line publication Forbes Digital Tool. Doing exhaustive research of his own, Penenberg had discovered the gaping holes in Glass’s hacker piece, and Forbes Digital Tool was planning to do some type of story about the errors. The three men interrogated Glass, and it became apparent that nothing checked out. The conversation, portions of which were taped, is chilling because of Glass’s psychological dexterity.
“We called some of the numbers that you gave us, and we got voice mails,” Foroohar said to Glass. “We tried E-mailing people and we have our E-mails returned back to us. Three of the E-mail addresses that we used came back saying no address or the account was closed—whatever.”
“Who are the people?,” Glass replied, still upbeat. “ ‘Cause I’ve E-mailed them.” (In fact, he hadn’t. They didn’t exist.)
Gradually a quiet exasperation crept into Glass’s voice; he seemed to imply that the problem was the incompetents at Forbes Digital Tool who were questioning him.
The conversation turned to Jukt Micronics, the company featured in “Hack Heaven.” Jukt, according to Glass’s account, had offered a teenage hacker named Ian Restil tens of thousands in cash and goods not to destroy its computer system.
“We still can’t get anything from Jukt,” said Foroohar. Jukt had been identified in the story as a big-time California software company. But Penenberg, after combing dozens of different databases as well as corporate records in an attempt to locate the company, could not find a single mention of it.
Glass didn’t flinch. “Did they call you back?” he asked.
Glass sounded surprised, as if there had been some breakdown in communication, and maybe there was. Realizing that Forbes Digital Tool was onto him, he had cast his younger brother, Michael, a senior studying psychology at Stanford and an accomplished actor in high school, in the role of a Jukt Micronics executive named George Sims. The night before, Michael had left a voice mail for Forbes Digital Tool. He had also spoken directly to Lane. Their conversation had been relatively short, but Michael acted his part with the aplomb that had earned him kudos for his portrayal of Tom in The Grapes of Wrath at Highland Park High School. He sounded young, but all principals of software companies sound young, and he snappily told Lane that he had no comment on the story and then hung up.
They moved on to the Jukt Micronics Web site on America Online (which Glass had created on the computer in his New Republic office).
“We looked at the Web site and it looks very suspicious to us,” said Foroohar.
“Why?” asked Lane.
“It doesn’t look like a real Web site. It looks like a Web site that was created for purposes different from what it proclaims to be.”
Glass began speaking a bit more rapidly, but there was no indication that he was nervous. Instead, he added a new wrinkle to his repertoire: deference.
“I don’t have a Web site, so I don’t know how easy or hard it is. I trust you guys know better than me.”
The gambit worked. Foroohar suggested that Glass had been the unwitting victim of clever hackers, and Glass seized upon the role.
“I feel really bad about doing this,” said Foroohar.
“I’m very sorry, too,” said Glass in a tone of complete understanding. “Um,” he added, as if to suggest he was about to make some type of painful confession. “Um,” he said again, and again. Then finally, finally, it came out.
“I’m increasingly beginning to think I was duped.”
Foroohar, bending over backward to be fair and honorable, was sympathetic. So was Penenberg. Like so many others, they became Glass’s protectors. “Look,” said Penenberg, trying to make Glass feel a little bit better about it all. “Covering hackers is very difficult.”
There are three houses on the cul-de-sac, curved in the shape of a clamshell, where Stephen Glass lived before he went to college. One is a faux château, but the Glasses’ house is of drab brown brick and has a pool out back. There is no sidewalk, and on a weekday in June the only sound comes from a lawn mower.
Highland Park has the feel of a gated community without the actual gates. Nestled in a cluster of affluent North Shore Chicago suburbs, it has a population of approximately 31,000, a median household income of $77,905, and a median house value of $257,000. Central Avenue, the shopping area, would look familiar to the creators of The Truman Show.
Two qualities particularly distinguish Highland Park, and both made an impression on Stephen Glass. The first is its theatrical tradition. Highland Park is a town of boys with very clever minds who left to strike gold in Hollywood. The creators of the Revenge of the Nerds movies grew up here. So did the director of Beethoven and The Flintstones. And so did Paul Brickman, the writer and director of Risky Business, which captured one of Highland Park’s key characteristics, namely the way many parents here push their kids to succeed. Harvard educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot spent a good deal of time at Highland Park High School researching her 1983 book, The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture. She was impressed with the school’s stunning academic programs but noted that values such as character and morality were sometimes little more than brushstrokes against the relentlessness of achievement. Highland Park parents, she found, expected children to be reading before kindergarten and were critical of teachers who stressed social-psychological development. Parents lived vicariously through their children and saw Ivy League admissions as emblems of their own success. It was a place, Lawrence-Lightfoot noted, where an average kid was seen as slow.
Everyone in the Glass household worked hard to succeed. Jeffrey Glass was a gastroenterologist, and Stephen’s mother, Michele, was in nursing. Their two boys, Stephen and Michael, cut an impressive path through Highland Park High.
In addition to his extracurricular theatrical activities, Stephen was vice president of the National Honor Society his senior year and president of the Student Congress. Academically he did extremely well, gaining acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania as a special scholar.
These distinctions were apparently crucial for him. According to more than a dozen people who knew Glass in high school, college, and later on, pleasing his parents and bettering their expectations with even more prodigious attainments was essential to him. In 1997, despite his flourishing journalism career, he told colleagues that, at the behest of his parents, he had decided to go to law school while continuing his work full-time as a reporter.
Glass also had to surmount another obstacle: a younger brother whose accomplishments in high school made his own look utterly unremarkable. Michael Glass was a National Merit scholarship semifinalist at Highland Park High. He was a star of a school play presented by the nationally recognized theater department. Michael Glass was cute, cool, and popular with girls. In a senior class composed of some of the nation’s best and brightest, he was voted Most Likely to Succeed.
Stephen, on the other hand, had a squeaky voice, wore ultra-preppy clothes, and sometimes seemed effeminate. And he had to grapple with something else: his parents had wanted him to be a doctor. Glass began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1990 on a pre-medical curriculum. According to various accounts, he held his own at the beginning. But then his grades nose-dived. He apparently flunked one course and barely passed another, suggesting that he had simply lost interest in being on a pre-med track, or had done poorly on purpose to shut the door to any future career in medicine. Glass ultimately majored in anthropology. He reportedly did well in this area of study, but given his inconsistent performance in pre-med courses, his overall grade-point average at Penn was hardly distinguished—slightly less than a B.
“His shit wasn’t always as together as everyone thought it was,” said Matthew Klein, who roomed with Glass at Penn when he was a senior and Glass a junior. There were indicators to Klein that Glass was not doing particularly well academically, but Glass never acknowledged it. “He always said he was doing fine, doing fine,” said Klein.
Almost as soon as Glass had gotten to Penn, he started working for The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper. By all accounts, he loved it, but quit at the insistence of his parents, apparently because of his inconsistent grades. Glass subsequently returned to the newspaper. He worked tirelessly and with ambition. Socially, he seemed to fashion himself as a kind of proud androgyne. “Steve Glass doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke,” said The Daily Pennsylvanian when Glass became executive editor in January of 1993. “And sex is definitely out.”
Those who worked at the paper had no idea of Glass’s sexuality, and there was speculation that he was gay, or at least sexually confused. When he started to date a girl, the rumors didn’t dissipate. Glass himself was aware of them, and in some ways seemed to promote them, describing encounters with men who assumed he was gay. Later on, at The New Republic, he wrote a story which was never published depicting his life as an “effeminate heterosexual.” Those who read it recall it vividly: Glass wrote about his knowledge of lipstick shades and his habit of reading women’s magazines. He mentioned a social outing with a man who attempted to kiss him after dinner.
Chuck Lane, although quiet during the call with Forbes Digital Tool, was not convinced that Stephen Glass had been duped by hackers.
He insisted that Glass show him the location of the conference that he had written about in “Hack Heaven.” So off they went in Glass’s Honda, leaving the New Republic offices in Washington and making their way on Wisconsin Avenue toward Bethesda. Glass drove slowly, 20 miles an hour, maybe 25.
They turned off Wisconsin Avenue and drove up to the entrance of the Hyatt. They went into the lobby, and Lane felt certain that Stephen Glass was lying. In fact, he wasn’t even sure that Glass had ever set foot in the lobby. And yet …
I was in this chair. And Ian was sitting there across from me, and Hiert was in that chair, and we sat here for a little while, and then somebody came along who was smoking too close to us, so we had to move, and we moved over here in these chairs. After about 45 minutes we got up and I had to go to the bathroom.
For a moment Lane thought about just telling Glass to knock it off. But on another level, the whole thing was too fascinating to interrupt—the very image, as he would later recall, of this 25-year-old boy “retracing these imaginary steps of these imaginary people in a calm, matter-of-fact voice.”
Glass led Lane down an escalator, through a hallway, out of the Hyatt, and into a next-door office building. The lobby was horseshoe-shaped, utterly implausible as the setting for the conference Glass had reported. But, in a matter of seconds, Glass sized up the place and started pointing out the tables where the participants had been set up. He mentioned that he had watched from a table in the far corner of the lobby. He hadn’t ever been seated at that table, but he described it in a way that corresponded perfectly to the diagram he had presented to fact checkers.
Lane found a building engineer, and then a security guard, both of whom said they had never heard of such a conference taking place in the lobby. And, as it happened, the building had been closed on the day Glass said the conference occurred.
“All I know is they let me in,” Glass told Lane. “I was let into the building.” He kept insisting, looking Lane straight in the eye. “I don’t understand what is going on here, but I was here. They let me into the building.”
And he was so good, so convincing, that Chuck Lane almost believed him.
Glass graduated from Penn in 1994, and went to work for the Heritage Foundation’sPolicy Review. After about a year he became an intern at The New Republic,working as an assistant to Andrew Sullivan, who preceded Michael Kelly as the editor. It was not a particularly stimulating job, involving administrative tasks such as answering the phone, answering correspondence, and an occasional personal errand for Sullivan.
Glass did little actual writing under Sullivan, but did complete assignments on disputes over governmental subsidies for cheese and on presidential candidate Bob Dole’s handlers. They were straightforward, with none of his later trademarks. At a magazine filled with precocious kids, he was far from the top.
But Glass’s personality endeared him to everyone. Among his friends, there is debate as to how much of Glass’s warmth was cultivated, but there is no doubt that it helped further his rise. In every way, he seemed above reproach. He appeared to work around the clock and was always asking others if they needed anything when he went out for coffee.
“The nickname for Steve was Hub,” said Michael Crowley, who worked at The New Republic with Glass when they were interns. “He was constantly on the make. Constantly needing this steady supply of dish. [He] needed to have relationships with everyone. He just knew all the office gossip. He knew everything. That’s why, to some extent, his reporting was credible—he knew everything inside the magazine, so why wouldn’t he figure out what was going on in the world of his stories?”
If there was one aspect of Glass’s personality that seemed indisputably genuine, it was this nonstop yearning to please. He had a near-masochistic inability to say no to anyone in authority.
“That was the weirdest thing about him,” said a former colleague. “That held back my ability to respect him and like him a lot. It was really preposterous and cartoonish. It also made him impossible to deal with on the same level that you deal with other people. There was some sort of a core that was missing, that core sense of confidence and security.”
“Are you mad at me?” That was something Glass said incessantly. The slightest look or gesture could send him into a panic of self-doubt. Certain friends advised him to stop asking the question; others found that it called forth their protective instincts. Glass’s would-be parent surrogates wanted only to help make this terribly insecure boy, who would describe a story he wrote as a “piece of shit,” feel better about himself.