You couldn't make it up - but he did

Years before Jayson Blair conned The New York Times, Stephen Glass was inventing entire stories. Now he is the subject of a Hollywood movie. James Silver reveals how he covered his tracks
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The Independent Online

It was a story about a computer hackers' convention in Bethesda, Maryland, that did it. Stephen Glass was just 25 and in three years had shot from being an "aching to please" intern to associate editor of the Washington political magazine The New Republic. He was tipped for media stardom, earning more than $100,000 a year and contributing regularly to some of America's most prestigious titles including Rolling Stone, George and Harper's Magazine.

It was stories like "Hack Heaven", as the fateful piece was headlined, upon which he had made his name. It told the story of how a teenage computer hacker broke into the system of a "big time software firm" called Jukt Micronics, and then posted the salary details of all the company's employees, along with pictures of naked women, on the company website.

Instead of being furious, Glass reported, the firm was so impressed with the hacker's talents that it attempted to hire him. But the cyber-geek had by now acquired an agent - "a super agent to super nerds" - and was holding out for more cash. Oh, and a lifetime subscription to Playboy.

The 1998 piece bore all the hallmarks of a typical Glass triumph, peopled as it was by unlikely (often comic) characters who provided unfailingly good quotes. In a piece entitled "Monica Sells", for example, Glass had reported on a political memorabilia jamboree where Monica Lewinsky condoms and talking dolls that uttered the words "I'm a good intern!" were sold. In "Plotters", he claimed to have come across a group of political malcontents called Restore the Presidency to Greatness, who were supposedly part of Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy".

All went down well. But, alas for Glass, not for long. Unfortunately for the him, a writer from the Forbes Digital Tool website, the now-defunct online version of Forbes magazine, tried to follow up the hacking story. After placing a number of calls it quickly became clear that not a single fact stood up. The convention had never taken place. Neither the software firm nor the teenage hacker existed.

Charles Lane, then The New Republic's executive editor, summoned Glass - whose story is now the subject of a film released this month in America - and asked to see his research notes. Glass obliged, providing him with comprehensive evidence, including a list of e-mail addresses and phone numbers for everyone who appeared in "Hack Heaven".

But when Lane dialled the numbers, they all turned out to be "these weird voicemails". When he e-mailed the 15-year-old hacker, he got abusive replies.

Lane demanded that Glass take him to the building in Bethesda where the convention had supposedly taken place. Glass led his boss to an office complex whose manager, of course, told Lane he knew nothing about it.

It emerged that the magazine's fastest-rising star had faked voicemails, faxes and an industry newsletter. He'd invented the "National Assembly for Hackers" and even gone so far as to create a bogus website for Jukt Micronics.

Glass was a bigger journalistic fraudster even than Jayson Blair, whose fabrications engendered a crisis of confidence at The New York Times when they were uncovered this year.

After dismissing Glass, Lane, now a staff writer at The Washington Post, discovered that 27 out of 41 stories published in The New Republic had been embellished or entirely made up. "We felt conned," he recalls. "People were very angry. There was a sickening feeling in your stomach."

He says Glass worked an unsupervised beat and had a unique ability to bamboozle colleagues, adding: "I would caution anyone against saying, 'It couldn't happen at my newspaper or magazine.' Just take it from me, it can happen. Especially when you're up against someone who is really determined to deceive you."

What sets Glass apart from Blair and other journalistic scam artists was that he went to such extraordinary lengths to cover his tracks.

Most publications in the US - including The New Republic - employ fact checkers. So how was Glass able to fool them? "He got past them for three reasons," explains Lane. "Firstly, the active effort to deceive. He submitted a lot of fake material. The fact-checkers would ask him for his notes and he would phoney them up. He supplied them with forged documents too. He would even disguise his voice and leave voicemails pretending to be sources in his story.

"The next reason was the psychological level - the fact-checkers were all his friends. They were people he'd worked with, people who trusted him. So they were not inclined to even remotely entertain the idea that they were being defrauded."

Lane continues: "On a third level, perhaps this notion of fact-checking summons up in people's minds great teams of staff going through stories. But that's not the way it was at The New Republic, especially back then. There were perhaps two people going through 10 to 15 stories in a couple of days. They didn't have a lot of resources or experience. They were younger people on entry-level wages. It was a very cobbled-together outfit. When you put all those things together, unfortunately it was all too easy for him to get through."

Since his sacking, Glass has kept a low-to-invisible profile. He's reportedly been in therapy and studied law at Georgetown University in Washington. Inevitably, he's also written a novel, The Fabulist, which has a familiar plot about a journalist who creates a tissue of lies. To publicise the book, he gave an exclusive interview to CBS's 60 Minutes, telling correspondent Steve Kroft that the lying began when he invented a quote to improve a dull story. By the end, his pieces were more or less fiction.

"I said to myself, 'You must stop. You must stop.' But I didn't. I loved the electricity of people liking my stories. I loved going to conference meetings and telling people what my story was going to be, and seeing the room excited. I wanted every story to be a home run."

He added: "I've spent five years coming to understand why I behaved so terribly. I didn't apologise to people [at the time] because I was so ashamed."

But some at The New Republic bluntly refuse to forgive him. "He's a worm. I have no place in my heart for him any longer," the literary editor Leon Wieseltier told CBS. "I don't mean to have a hard heart, but this is contrition as a career move. I have no reason to believe otherwise."