Hacking and fake news – never a better time to remember Stephen Glass

Hacking and fake news has been at the forefront of the discussions around new President Donald Trump. Possible Russian hacking of Trump’s election and his constant use of the term “fake news” to describe credible media outlets got me thinking of the combination of hacking and fake news – the piece “Hack Heaven” the ran in the May 18, 1998 edition of The New Republic. Read the original piece here and evaluate whether it could have even been remotely true.

The New Republic has long been the bible or at least one of them for the center-left in the United States. As someone who has read the magazine on and off for over two decades, I have vivid memories of the Stephen Glass scandal. The embellishments of Stephen Glass which came soon after the plagiarism of Ruth Shalit rocked the magazine which had been a core part of the neo-liberal creed in Washington during the 1990’s. Both Glass and Shalit had been young stars at the magazine, causing major embarrassment.

Before discussing the recent ebook by Adam Penenberg who exposed the scandal in writing for Forbes Digital Tool or the movie Shattered Glass (along with the DVD special features), a few words on The New Republic. The magazine had in the 1970’s moved from its traditional liberal positions towards neo-liberalism which eventually became a basis for neo-conservatism. TNR became hawkish on foreign policy, skeptical of liberation movements in the developing world and ultimately attached to Democrats who ran to the middle of the political spectrum. This culminated with then editor Peter Beinhart supporting the Iraq War , something based on much of his non TNR writing seems impossible to rationalize. I had previously become disgusted by Andrew Sullivan’s tenure in the mid 1990’s as TNR editor. He took The New Republic in a conservative direction and ultimately promoted young writers like Shalit and Glass who had a flair for colorful stories but not much else. But in hindsight, Sullivan’s conservatism was really a personal distaste for President Clinton’s clear duplicity and selfishness, something I learned to share as I grew older. It is worth noting Sullivan has been a staunch backer and defender of President Obama. It is also worth noting that Sullivan was the first openly gay editor of a major American political magazine.

Anyway I digress, back to the infamous Mr. Glass. The movie Shattered Glass and the recent ebook Unbelievable: Stephen Glass Wants a Second Chance by Adam Penenberg who as a Forbes Digital writer exposed Glass’ outright lies are must buys , one as a companion to the other. The movie is one of the most realistic portrayals of contemporary events taken to screen. Perhaps it’s because Glass’ lies were so creative, the filmmakers did not have to take the amount of creative license necessary to spruce up other adaptations of recent non-fiction events. Many of the conversations in the movie are identical to that of Penenberg’s ebook. The film, made in 203 has a 91% rating from Rotten Tomatoes and has generally gotten very positive reviews from critics.

The heroes of the film, much like real life was Penenberg and then-New Republic editor Charles Lane who many might know as a Washington Post columnist and frequent contributor to FOX News, Particularly the “All-Star panel” on Special Report with Bret Bair . The film shows the relationship the young Glass developed with the rest of the staff as well as the previous editor Michael Kelly (who passed away during the 2003 Iraq War and was also a Clinton-hater much like Sullivan his predecessor). Glass was able to fabricate stories and make unbelievable claims about subjects because he was so engaging and likable. If you obtain the DVD copy of the movie, the Special Features includes audio commentary by Lane which is particularly useful for those who want an accurate reading of history.

Glass’  lies were even convenient for people me. I often repeated the fabrications in the 1997 piece entitled “Spring Breakdown” until the scandal broke because it fit my narrative at that time about the decadence of conservatives. when Glass was caught and fired by Lane in May 1998, I was hoping “Spring Breakdown” would not appear on the list of dishonest articles. Unfortunately it was wholly made up, something David Keene the President of the American Conservative Union at the time had claimed to Kelly. Yet Kelly, as the movie portrays defended his young writer.

Another vivid and colorful story by Glass I remember was “Monica Sells” which was I must admit seemingly unbelievable at the time, but in the midst of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, few questioned it publicly.

The scene of Glass skirting by with contrived phony pieces (what we would call today “fake news”)  repeats itself over and over in the film until Glass’ “Hack Heaven” about the exploits of Jukt Micronics and a young hacker named Ian Restil were exposed by Penenberg. The extent of Glass’ lies and the efforts he made to cover up things by adding layers to his lies eventually undid him.

For any fan of politics and journalism the movie is a must watch. For those like me who are passionate about both topics, it’s an important permanent addition to my library. The same can be said for Penenberg’s ebook.

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