No second chance for Stephen Glass: The long, strange downfall of a journalistic wunderkind
The California Supreme Court has denied disgraced former journalist Stephen Glass a license to practice law.
Pointing out in its ruling that "Glass's journalistic dishonesty was not a single lapse of judgment" but "involved significant deceit sustained unremittingly for a period of years" -- made the more reprehensible because it took place "while he was pursuing a law degree and license to practice law, when the importance of honesty should have gained new meaning and significance for him" -- the court found that Glass had not adequately redeemed himself.
For all of Glass' past history -- and I'll get to that, at length, in a moment -- the judgment is remarkable. The last time California barred a lawyer before he'd even practiced his first case, it involved a man named Eben Gossage, who served three years for killing his sister then returned to prison for possession of heroin.
If you recall, Glass was The New Republic associate editor who in the late 1990s fabricated in whole or part dozens of articles, mostly published in The New Republic but also for Harpers, Rolling Stone, and the now defunct George magazine. At the time, it was the journalism scandal to end all journalism scandals. Glass vanished for a while, heading off to law school (and a brief stint as an improv comedian) before finally passing the California bar exam in 2009. The California State Bar promptly banned him from practicing, based on his prior moral turpitude, a decision he successfully appealed. The case wound through the courts, leading to today's final decision by the state's Supreme Court.
* * *There's no way for me to report, or even think, objectively on today's news. After all, I was the Forbes editor who first unmasked Glass and his lies. This led to my one brief moment of celebrity when I was portrayed by Steve Zahn in the movie "Shattered Glass" (Om Malik, my then Forbes colleague, was combined into a composite played by -- I kid you not -- Rosario Dawson).
Although I never actually met Glass in person I’m pretty sure that, unlike many of his sources, he does exist. Over the years I’ve obliquely followed his comings, goings, and doings. After The New Republic fired him in 1998, he graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown Law School. He passed the New York State bar exam in 2000 but waited until 2002 to apply for admission to the bar. Notified that he would likely be rejected because of his “acts of moral turpitude,” Glass withdrew his application.
In the meantime, he decided to re-enter journalism, and in 2003, Jann Wenner assigned him an article for Rolling Stone on Canada’s drug laws (“Canada’s Pot Revolution”). Meanwhile, Glass received a $190,000 advance for "The Fabulist," a novel about a young journalist caught fabricating stories. Glass promoted it with a heavy TV blitz, appearing on ”60 Minutes” and a slew of other news shows. This 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.”
Om Malik, my then Forbes colleague, was combined into a composite played by -- I kid you not -- Rosario Dawson
Despite the excessive promotion, the book fared poorly, selling fewer than 5,000 copies. The following year, Glass moved to California and passed that state’s bar exam, but in 2009, California bar examiners rejected his application on character grounds, questioning whether he had truly rehabilitated himself. Around that time, Billy Ray, ”Shattered Glass” screenwriter/director, told me he was on line for a movie in Los Angeles when he spotted Glass working as a street performer with Un-Cabaret. (His stage name: “The Fabulist.” No, I didn’t make that up.) Later, Glass took a job at a Beverly Hills law firm as either a paralegal or law clerk, depending on whose account you believe.
Over the years, I've watched from a distance as his quest to join the legal profession has wound through the appeals process, with Glass twice prevailing. It dovetailed with my writing and publishing an ebook on Glass from which some of this piece is excerpted. In it, I share details and information about debunking him that have never before been published nor included in the movie.
I even convinced Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who often pops up on J-school syllabi whenever the subject turns to ethics, to blurb it: "Glass may not be perfect, but he is human, just like Penenberg, whose own emotions surrounding the scandal and aftermath are as interesting as the story of his subject."
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. In early 2012, the California Supreme Court opted to hear the case, bringing Glass, who is now past 40, the closest he ever was to his new dream gig. But several of the justices appeared skeptical that Glass had truly repented, and all seven judges had hard questions for his attorney, so today's ruling, which appears to mark the end of a lengthy, serpentine journey, isn't surprising.
To say the 26-year-old version of Glass lied is like saying Bernie Madoff committed fraud. In the 1990s, Glass didn’t simply unspool a few exaggerations, like theater performer Mike Daisey did in his report on Apple factories in China for NPR’s “This American Life.” Glass lied, lied some more, and tossed out more lies to cover up other lies wrapped in additional lies.
And present-day Stephen Glass? Few words are as dangerous as, “I’m no psychologist, but ...” It occurred to me that the strategies Glass adopted to combat his ban are eerily similar to the ones I confronted all those years ago as I tried to get to the bottom of things.
* * *Hitch a ride back to early May 1998. I was an editor at Forbes Digital Tool, Forbes magazine’s website. Kambiz Foroohar, the Iranian-born executive editor, called me into his office, slid a copy of the May 18th New Republic across his desk, jabbed his finger in the middle of a story titled “Hack Heaven” and snapped, “Why didn’t you write this?”
To say the 26-year-old version of Glass lied is like saying Bernie Madoff committed fraud.Normally I saved political magazines for the dentist’s office – I barely had time to digest material related to my beat – so I didn’t have much to say, save for muttering a few sotto voce insults. After skulking to my cubicle and reading the story, however, I too was kicking myself for missing it.
“Hack Heaven” detailed the exploits of Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who broke into the computer system of Jukt Micronics, “a big-time software firm” in California. Once inside, the arrogant teen posted every employee’s salary on the company’s website alongside some nudie pictures, each bearing the caption, “THE BIG BAD BIONIC BOY HAS BEEN HERE BABY.” Instead of phoning the FBI – standard operating procedure since hacking was and is a federal offense – Jukt executives hired Restil to show them how to protect their systems. To ensure he got top dollar, he retained a former NBA agent, Joe Hiert, described in the article as “super-agent to super-nerds.” Hiert claimed to represent nearly 300 black hat hackers, a third of the 900 or so who had been bought off by the companies they digitally penetrated, according to Computer Insider, a hacker newsletter.
The article reported that such deals, which seemed little more than Web-based protection rackets, had stymied prosecutors, and law enforcement officials in Nevada were so desperate to stop companies from hiring hackers they had sponsored a series of public service announcements on radio: “Would you hire a shoplifter to watch the cash register? Please don’t deal with hackers.” More than 20 state legislatures were considering the Uniform Computer Security Act, which would criminalize these types of immunity deals, imposing stiff penalties on the companies. Glass went on to quote: Julie Farthwork of the Computer Security Center; Jim Ghort, director of the Center for Interstate Online Investigations (a joint police project of 18 states); and Frank Juliet, president of the National Assembly of Hackers (a lobbying group).
According to the story, malevolent hackers like Restil were reaping seven-figure payoffs. One lucky kid received a monster truck. “Hack Heaven” concluded with a lively scene at a hacker convention, where Restil was treated as a conquering hero. The audience cheered when an emcee announced that Restil had signed a deal with Jukt for $81,000 in scholarship money and a collection of rare comic books. Old and young alike crowded around, offering high fives. “Then,” Glass wrote, Restil “stood on his chair and took a bow. He announced that he had hacked into a new company and frozen their bank account temporarily. ‘And now they’re going to show me the money,’ he said, swirling his hips and shaking his fists. ‘I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World …’” (You can find the original article, which The New Republic pulled down after the scandal broke, on my website.)
After I finished reading, I’m pretty sure I muttered “Holy shit!” I had never heard of Jukt Micronics, digital extortion deals or hacker agents. Glass cited anti-hacker legislation, a hacker organization and a law enforcement agency that was news to me. I had never encountered an organization called the National Assembly of Hackers, wasn’t aware of any recent conventions, had never read a hacker newsletter titled “Computer Insider,” nor did I know any hacker with the nom de hack “Big Bad Bionic Boy.” In fact, I didn’t recognize one single fact in “Hack Heaven” save perhaps for the existence of the Internet.
But how could I have missed such a big story? At Forbes.com, I covered business and technology, but also explored music and software piracy, computer hacking, phone phreaking, identity theft, credit card fraud, cyber-spooks and all things relating to the dark side of the Internet. These weren’t part of my job description but were popular with readers, often attracting traffic from people who wouldn’t have known Forbes from Fodors. They quickly became my specialty.
Normally I don’t check other reporters’ work, and certainly had no intention of acting like some journalism cop. But something wasn’t right. I was like a sports reporter who had just read an article on basketball and didn’t recognize any of the teams, players or cities. Either I was an egregiously irresponsible reporter acting as a cyber-poseur, or Stephen Glass was. I decided to work on a follow-up story.
Few things are more boring than watching a reporter conduct research. Much of what we do is type, talk on the phone and bang our heads on our desks. Nevertheless, it’s important to give you an idea just how much research I – and my colleagues – did to try and verify facts in Glass’s story. If you have any "montage" music queued up, press play now...
My first step was to try and locate the company so I could find out more about the protection racket deal. But I came up empty when I plugged “Jukt Micronics” into Yahoo’s search engine (Google didn’t exist). Even in April 1998, you’d expect a so-called “big-time” software firm to maintain a website. I tried a few other search engines but Jukt didn’t have an Internet presence. Not only did it not have a website; no one had even mentioned the company.
Because The New Republic was behind the times, it didn’t offer its stories online, so I had to manually type all the names and organizations from Glass’s article into an email message and relay them to a Forbes librarian. I also emailed portions of the piece to a half-dozen computer security experts and various black, gray, and white hat hackers I had gotten to know through my reporting, then phoned Stephen Glass to request Ian Restil’s number. I got his voice mail.
A few minutes later, email from computer security contacts trickled in: The New Republic story must be a “fraud,” “B.S.,” “If there are hacker agents then I’m a Spice Girl,” another example of a media publication “hyping the hacker menace.” None knew of any recent hacker conventions, the “Big Bad Bionic Boy” sounded completely phony and there was no National Assembly of Hackers. A half hour after that, a Forbes librarian provided results of my Lexis-Nexis search: In the millions of articles the database queried, there was only one that included any of the names and organizations in Stephen Glass’s New Republic story – and that was “Hack Heaven.”
It was virtually impossible that Glass’s sourcing was so fresh that no person, organization or publication referenced in it had never been mentioned or quoted anywhere else. I tracked down Kambiz, who told me to work on it for the rest of the day and see where my research took me. “Be careful,” he added.
We both knew the stakes. The New Republic had a long, venerable history while Forbes.com was barely a year old. As online journalists, we were constantly reminded that we were the ugly redheaded stepchildren of print, about as respected as gossip columnists. The print loyalists claimed we couldn’t be as accurate as they were: our deadlines were too crushing, our staffs too small. What about wire services like the Associated Press, Bloomberg, and Reuters, I would counter. They have even tighter deadlines and no one questioned their credibility. But print was grappling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know what to make of us. Since our audience was so small, being an online journalist was the journalism equivalent of working in Siberia.
I wrote down the roughly 40 facts I needed to check and got to work, with the first step trying to locate Jukt Micronics. Because there was no nationwide 411 service at the time, I dialed directory assistance for every area code in California: all 15, plus the 800 and 888 toll-free exchanges. But I found no listing of Jukt Micronics in the state of California. I checked with the Software Publishers Association of America, the California Secretary of State business filings department, and the state tax franchise board. Still nothing on Jukt.
To confirm or disprove a positive can be difficult enough. It can take half a dozen phone calls to confirm one nugget of information, but at least once you verify it, you’ve done your job. To prove something or someone doesn’t exist – or to disprove a negative – is much harder: Every time you strike out means another query, another phone call, another wasted hour poking around databases or the Internet.
If I published a story that debunked the existence of Jukt Micronics, could I be leaving myself open to potential trouble, possibly even a libel or slander suit? Was it possible some pimply-faced 20-something running a startup called Jukt Micronics out of his parents’ basement would read my story, then come out of the digital woodwork? But no article or website ever cited the company; it had never incorporated or applied as an LLC, hadn’t paid taxes or lobbied, and wasn’t in any phone directory.
I spent the next day and a half trying to confirm one fact – any fact – in Glass’s story. The Nevada state highway patrol and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Force said they had never heard of any anti-hacker public service campaigns. Neither had editors at the state’s two biggest daily newspapers and the top four radio stations. When I spoke with the Nevada attorney general’s spokesman, he replied, “Son, if there was a PSA campaign dealing with hackers I would have heard about it. It’s simply not true.”
Officials from the FBI, the Justice Department, US customs departments, and police departments in California and New Hampshire (both aggressive cybercrime fighters), could not verify any organization, law, or government agency mentioned in the article. If, as Glass reported, 21 states were considering versions of the “Uniform Computer Security Act,” which would criminalize immunity deals between hackers and companies, the Chicago-based National Conference of Commissions on Uniform State Laws had no knowledge of it. The National Basketball Association requires that every agent register with the league, but Joe Hiert never had.
Other Forbesians pitched in and we turned fact-checking “Hack Heaven” into a cottage industry. Dot com reporters took turns dialing every public and private school in the vicinity of Washington, DC to find out whether Ian Restil was registered as a student. Interns expanded the search for Jukt Micronics by dialing directory assistance in neighboring states and trying different spellings while a friendly colleague from a rival publication based in Silicon Valley canvassed his sources for information on the company. Librarians scoured databases to see if Restil’s mother owned property or had ever voted. Hackers took to the ether to see if any of their ilk were claiming credit for a “media hack” – fooling a conventional publication into publishing a completely made-up story. None of us could verify a single fact that Glass had published.
We both knew the stakes. The New Republic had a long, venerable history while Forbes.com was barely a year old.Finally it was time to confront The New Republic. I phoned Charles Lane, the magazine’s editor, and told him I had serious questions about “Hack Heaven” and was thinking of doing my own story on it. Lane asked for specifics.
“Well, for one,” I said, “I can’t find the company, Jukt Micronics.”
“Maybe we misspelled it,” he replied.
“You have fact-checkers, right?”
“Yes, but every now and then anyone can make a mistake.”
Perhaps, but we had tried several different spellings, and couldn’t locate Joe Hiert, the agent, or Ian Restil, for that matter.
Lane, sounding remarkably composed, told me he’d talk to Glass. Two hours later my phone rang. “Hey, Adam,” he said, “Call this number and let me know what you think.” It had a 650 area code, Silicon Valley. I couldn’t help but notice every eye in the newsroom on me when I dialed.
A few rings then, “You have reached the offices of Jukt Micronics. Please leave a message.” Beep.
I hung up.
Almost two solid days of research and suddenly I was getting the company’s voicemail? I looked over at my colleague Om "Rosario Dawson" Malik, who sat 15 feet away, and asked him to call the number. Malik covered semiconductors for Forbes.com, and later would go on to write for Business 2.0 before starting a blog covering broadband called GigaOM, which would make him a star. At the time, though, we both toiled away in relative obscurity. Malik and I simultaneously dialed Jukt, and he encountered the same voice message while I got a busy signal. I told him to hang up and we hit redial. This time my call went through, but he heard the busy signal. We hung up.
“How many software companies,” I asked, “have only one line into its switchboard?” The key, we realized, would be to ascertain whether the Jukt number was listed as a business or residential line. I called Pac Bell and after being on hold for 15 minutes, finally got through. “Sir,” the operator said, “it’s a cell phone.”
I slammed down the receiver and informed my colleagues. We had all become deeply invested in the story and now knew for sure it was a sham. What we didn’t know was whether Stephen Glass had been taken for a ride by some savvy hackers or simply made the whole thing up. It was hard to conceive of a journalist creating a story out of whole cloth and publishing it in The New Republic. The hacker angle seemed no more promising, since no one was taking credit.
The next course of action was to pressure Chuck Lane into producing Glass for a phone interview. It was after 6 p.m. and we decided to wait for the next morning. That night, Lane tracked me down at home while I was watching a Knicks-Heat playoff game, wanting to know if I had dialed the number he gave me.
When I told him, he asked, “What did you get?”
“A voicemail,” I said. “What did you get?”
I let the silence hang there.
“You know something,” Lane said. “What are you not telling me?”
“Chuck, all I can say is I highly recommend you let us interview Stephen tomorrow at 9 a.m. We still have grave concerns about the article you published.” Frankly, I didn’t know how Lane would play it. He was under no obligation to let us talk to Glass. On the other hand, we were his best chance to get to the bottom of this. Lane agreed.
After a night of tossing and turning, I strolled in to the office at 8 a.m. and on my desk was a fax from The New Republic, which included photocopies of business cards, including one from the agent Joe Hiert, a URL for Jukt’s website, and email addresses for Jim Ghort, director of the Center for Interstate Online Investigations; Julie Farthwork from the Computer Security Center; and National Assembly of Hackers president Frank Juliet, who also had a phone number. I pinged each with an email requesting an interview, but they immediately bounced back as mailer daemons. For Juliet I got a voicemail that consisted of heavy breathing. I left a message anyway.
The URL for Jukt’s website was also problematic. It was an America Online address, and at the time AOL was a walled garden, searchable by AOL members but not by the wider Web. That would explain why it hadn’t shown up in search engines, but raised another question: Why would a “big-time” software firm – Glass’s term – choose AOL as its web host if only AOL members could find it? The second problem was more vexing: The URL didn’t work.
I listed every fact we needed to confirm from Glass’s story on a white board in Kambiz’s office, and planned to check off each one as it came up. I would run the interview while Kambiz would oversee. David Churbuck, the site publisher, would remain in the background and offer advice, if needed.
Kambiz dialed the number and Lane picked up after the first ring. He said he had Stephen Glass in his office, but before starting he wanted to know if he could record the conversation. Who were we to disagree? We were taping too, for our lawyers, just in case. Then I took over, beginning with “Hack Heaven,” proceeding line by line, starting from the top.
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. Then, you can buy the [comic] book, and then, when you’re of more, say, appropriate age, you can buy the car and pornographic magazines on your own.”
It’s pretty amazing that a 15-year-old could get a big-time software firm to grovel like that. What’s more amazing, though, is how Ian got Jukt’s attention – by breaking into its databases. In March, Restil – whose nom de plume is “Big Bad Bionic Boy” – used a computer at his high school library to hack into Jukt. Once he got past the company’s online security system, he posted every employee’s salary on the company’s website alongside more than a dozen pictures of naked women, each with the caption: “the big bad boy has been here baby.” After weeks of trying futilely to figure out how Ian cracked the security program, Jukt’s engineers gave up. That’s when the company came to Ian’s Bethesda, Maryland, home – to hire him. I asked for Ian Restil’s phone number, but Glass could only provide an anonymous webmail address. “He’s online all the time,” Glass said, and he didn’t know if the teen even had a phone. I wanted to know how he had met Ian Restil, but Glass’s memory was fuzzy. He thought Restil might have emailed him; he would check his inbox. We had combed through half a dozen databases looking for an address and came up empty, and no Ian Restil was registered as a student in any school we could find. When I asked for Restil’s home address Glass said he didn’t know it.
“But in the article you give the impression you were at his house,” I pointed out. That’s where the negotiation between Jukt executives and the Restils took place.
Glass said he had never been to the Restil’s home and didn’t mean to give that impression.
I thought about that. It was clear in the second paragraph that Glass was acting like a fly on the wall in Restil’s Bethesda, Maryland home. If he hadn’t actually been there he had misled readers.
Then I requested the names of Jukt’s executives. Glass listed George Sims – that’s whose voicemail I had dialed the day before – but he couldn’t remember who the other man was.
What about contact information for Jukt Micronics? Glass said he had given the number to Lane.
I told them it was a cell phone.
Glass took it in stride. “Did they call you back?”
“Ever?” He sounded surprised. Later I would learn that Glass had conscripted his brother, Michael, a student at Stanford, to pose as Jukt’s irritated CEO and call Lane and me to throw us off the scent. He reached Lane, but I never got the message.
“We called some of the numbers that you gave us, and we got voicemails,” I said. “We tried emailing people and we have our emails returned back to us. Three of the email addresses that we used came back to us saying no address or the account was closed.”
“Who are the people?” Glass replied. He claimed he emailed them all the time and never had a problem getting a response. Glass sounded annoyed, as if he were dealing with a bunch of incompetents. I found his attitude inexplicable. I thought about how I would respond if I were in his position. I wouldn’t be impatient. I’d be desperate to clear my name.
I had him repeat the numbers and email addresses and promised I’d keep trying, then I read back the information he had faxed us for Hiert, Farthwork, and Juliet. “There are references to Nevada law enforcement officials. Was Jim Ghort” – he was the director of the Center for Interstate Online Investigations – “the only one you spoke to?”
“Do you have a phone number for him?”
Glass said it was somewhere in his notes and promised to find it.
While waiting, I told Glass the address he gave us for the Jukt website didn’t work.
He asked me to recite it: http://www.members.aol.com.juktn
“M?” he asked.
“No, N,” I said, “as in not working.”
Kambiz shook his head, warning me to behave.
“Try M,” Glass repeated. “Sorry about that. I was just rushing.”
I made the change and a site slowly unfurled on the screen, black letters on a teal background. There was only the one page, no links to other sections on the site, and a note to New Republic editors.
I peered at Kambiz, who looked at Churbuck, who eyed me.
Kambiz broke the silence. “We looked at the website and it looks very suspicious to us.”
“Why?” Lane asked.
“It doesn’t look like a real website. It looks like a website that was created for purposes different from what it proclaims to be.”
Lane, who had remained quiet for most of the conversation, said, “I don’t know much about computers. Could someone do that?”
“Of course,” Kambiz replied.
“Very easily,” I chimed in.
“So easily, it’s incredible,” Kambiz said.
Glass changed the subject. “You still want that number for Jim Ghort? I just found it in my notes.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
“All right. Six-Oh-Five. Eight-Five ... “
“Wait,” I said. “That’s not Nevada.” I knew that because I’d called the state a dozen times over the past three days. Instead, Glass had given me the area code for South Dakota.
Glass grunted. I could hear him leaf through his notes. “I guess I got him mixed up with another source,” he said. More paper rustling. “Sorry about that one. You know what it was? Jim Ghort was actually the guy who told me about the law enforcement officials.”
“Steve!” Lane growled. “Give him the number!”
There was shocked silence. Lane’s outburst unnerved everyone. I whispered to Kambiz, “The guy is toast.”
It was time to wrap up. I asked Glass if he ever called these sources directly, and verified their identities by going through official switchboards.
“No,” Glass said. “I always left messages and spoke to them when they called me back.”
Kambiz suggested Glass might have been the unwitting victim of clever hackers. “I really feel bad doing this,” he said.
“I’m very sorry, too,” Glass said. “Um,” he added, as if about to make a wrenching confession, “I’m increasingly beginning to think I was duped.”
We had just gotten a New Republic reporter to back off his story. I could afford to be magnanimous especially after the grilling I had given him. “Look,” I said, “covering hackers is very difficult.”
After we hung up, I rushed to post a story, but Churbuck stopped me. He pointed out that we still didn’t have an ending, didn’t know if Stephen Glass had been duped or simply made up the whole thing. Until I did, we wouldn’t publish a story. Churbuck emphasized that as an online publication and the baggage we carried, we had to handle this better than any print publication. He ordered me back to my desk to prepare a draft, in case we had to move fast. I had the rest of the day to crack this. Being Friday, if I couldn’t, we would regroup after the weekend.
“You’re not going to get scooped,” Churbuck said. “They’re not going to tell anyone.”
* * *Sunday, two days after I spoke to Glass in the infamous conference call, Chuck Lane phoned “as a courtesy” to inform me he had fired Glass after determining that the young associate editor had fabricated “Hack Heaven” and at least portions of two other stories. Lane read me the press release he had prepared. He barely mentioned Forbes.com and identified me as an unnamed reporter who had simply brought some inconsistencies in Glass’s story to his attention, which led Lane to conduct an investigation.
I was more amused than angry that he was taking credit for uncovering Glass’s lies until he dropped a bombshell. He said he had given the story to Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post media critic and host of CNN’s “Informed Sources,” who was at this moment writing a story for Monday’s paper.
“Why would you do this?” I asked.
Lane said he had to do what was best for the company, and that meant giving the scoop to Kurtz.
“You worked with Glass for years, you were his editor, and you didn’t even know he had made up anything until I came along.”
Lane insisted he had to protect The New Republic.
After I flambéed him with a stream of obscenity, I said, “You print guys don’t get it. Howie can have his story. I can get mine up in 15 minutes and by the time his comes out in print, mine will have been up for hours.”
I told Lane to fax me the statement, slammed down the phone, then called Kambiz, who lived nearby. On the way to his place, I wrapped an umbrella around a telephone pole. Kambiz and I raced to the office, where I reworked my story. He told me to write it as a hard news piece, nothing fancy. My phone rang. It was Lane. I started to harangue him but Kambiz grabbed the receiver, telling Lane to hold while he transferred the call to his office. Because Kambiz purposely left his door open, I could hear his end of the conversation. Lane asked him not to run the story: Glass had made mistakes. He was a kid who messed up, and he was fired. But Kambiz was firm, “and we’re going to need a statement from you.” Kambiz got it.
I filed a draft that Kambiz edited then headlined, “Forbes Smokes Out Fake New Republic Story on Hackers.” Then I sat down and pounded out a companion piece, “Lies, Damn lies and Fiction,” which detailed what we had done and how, while Kambiz contributed “Tracking Lies” – an editor’s note. We struggled through the usual late-90s technological glitches in getting our story posted, but finally posted a little after 9:30 p.m. Then we spammed every reporter, editor, and media critic we could think of, plus Drudge Report, Journalism listservs, and discussion threads.
Within minutes Matt Drudge emailed back, insulting Kurtz, whose piece posted minutes after ours. “Trying to take credit for your scoop,” Drudge said. “What an asshole!” He put our story at the top of the page, above Kurtz’s. A number of other online publications followed suit.
The next morning I rolled into the office intending to make a quick appearance then head home for some badly needed sleep. I didn’t even bother showering and wore jeans, a ratty t-shirt and a denim jacket. Overnight, a storm had been brewing, with the story of Glass’s fabrication gaining escape velocity. An interesting duality emerged. The Post owned the print world, while we prevailed in cyberspace. The Associated Press initially ran Kurtz’s story over the wires until a Forbes publicist offered to put them in touch with the journalists who really broke the story. I was about to head home before lunch when an AP reporter called. I did the interview, answered some email, and was about to close down for the day when I was told a car was waiting out front to whisk me up to CNN’s studios.
At CNN, I was propped up on a stool in a TV studio about to conduct an interview for the news hour when I heard a voice from the control room say, “Can you do anything about the hair?” A stylist emerged from the wings waving a comb and spraying a thick cloud of hairspray. After primping and pulling and trying to flatten my unruly locks, she called up to the producer. “No,” she said.
I did the interview anyway, as well as segments for "Moneyline" and other shows. When I returned to the office I had about 50 voicemail messages and spent the rest of the week fielding interviews from reporters with publications from around the globe.
* * *In fall 2003, a film that portrayed the events I had helped set in motion debuted. “Shattered Glass” (Lion’s Gate) had an all-star cast: Hayden Christensen, best known for “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” starred as Stephen Glass while indie idol Peter Sarsgaard (“Boys Don’t Cry”) was Charles Lane. Dark, brooding Chloe Sevigny was a New Republic staffer, and Rosario Dawson played a composite character largely constructed from Om Malik, who was transformed from a paunchy, middle-aged Indian reporter into a hot chick named Andy who would do anything for a byline.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said when director Billy Ray told me that Steve Zahn, best known for playing loveable losers with drug problems, would be portraying me.
When Zahn phoned to solicit background on my character, he started off, “So, dude, when you, I mean me, er us … were like, like taking out this asshole liar … um, what were you wearing?”
I told him what it was like to be me, which didn’t sound all that exciting.
A few months later, I visited the set in Montreal, and the crew laughed when I walked in wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt. It was exactly what Zahn wears in the movie.
When my eight-months pregnant wife, Charlotte, and I stepped out of a car to walk the red carpet for the premiere of “Shattered Glass” at the Toronto Film Festival, the paparazzi were out in full force. I felt ridiculous as we were showered in photo flashes, until one of the photographers screamed, “Who the fuck are you!?”
I told him my name.
“Are you in the movie?”
This caused me a minor existential crisis. “Kind of,” I said.
“You either are or you aren’t.”
“Steve Zahn plays him,” my wife added helpfully.
* * *Almost 16 years after Stephen Glass was nailed in all his fakery, the whole sordid affair has become part of journalism lore, a story that helped make my career but was also much bigger than it. On Facebook, there are profiles (ostensibly fake) for characters who appeared in “Hack Heaven” – George Sims (who was played by Stephen Glass’s own brother), the fake CEO for Jukt Micronics, the phony company; Joe Hiert, the faux former NBA agent who brokered the hacker’s million-dollar deal; and Ian Restil, the “Big Bad Bionic Boy,” which on his page offers a nerdy photo and gives his employer as Jukt Micronics: “Jr. Technician, Online Computer Security and Hacking Group, Oct. 1998 to present.” An evolutionary biologist noticed that Ian Restil is an anagram for “TNR is a lie.” A woman in computer security and follows me on Twitter registered the domain jukt-micronics.com because the story fascinated her. Stephen Glass is on several college journalism syllabi.
The intervening years also affords us the opportunity to track how Stephen Glass handled his quest to become a lawyer. According to California State Bar appeal documents and a brief Glass’s attorney filed, he blamed his ethical lapses on his tormented childhood and psychological problems for which he had been receiving counseling. Even when addressing legal authorities years after his comeuppance, however, 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 untrue. 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 27 stories but didn’t furnish a complete list of tainted stories until 2009 – 11 years after he was caught – when he was engaged in legal proceedings with the California State Bar. His revised list now includes 42 articles published in The New Republic, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Policy Review, Slate, 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 wanted 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 1998 Glass and present-day Glass refrained from telling the whole truth. It took Glass more than a decade to provide thorough accounting of his fabrications, and he only finally did so when it was convenient to him. 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 should have written 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. He manipulated New Republic staffers to openly revolt against Lane when his editor attempted to get to the bottom of things and turned to people to stand up for him with the state bar.
Never has he fully come clean. Are these the actions of a man who has truly rehabilitated himself?
I tried to speak with Glass for this story. I left a message with a receptionist at the Beverly Hills law office where he works. When I didn’t hear back, I tried again, and this time I was patched through to a voicemail for “Steve Glass.” I left my number and a request that he call me, wondering what he would make of hearing my name and voice again after all these years.
A few hours later, I received a voice message from Jon Eisenberg, an attorney in Oakland, CA, who said he represented Glass. When I phoned back, he said that neither Stephen nor he would talk.
“So you called me to tell me you can’t talk to me,” I said.
We agreed that was strange. He offered to email me a brief he had filed on Glass’s behalf. Then I asked him to pass on a message to his client.
“Tell him I want to talk to him after the ruling comes down from the California Supreme Court.”
Eisenberg said they’ve received a lot of media requests. Why would Stephen choose me?
“Just tell him I want to talk. I’m sure he’ll agree I’m a special case.”
We left it at that. After we hung up, I checked up on Eisenberg to confirm that he was indeed an attorney practicing law in Oakland … just in case.
This piece includes extracts from Adam Penenberg's ebook "Unbelievable: Stephen Glass Wants Another Chance."
[illustrations by Brad Jonas for Pando]