Political Film Society - Newsletter #184 - November 15, 2003

November 15, 2003


Shattered GlassJournalism is a serious business, according to Shattered Glass. Directed by Billy Ray, the film is a biopic of Stephen Glass (played by Hayden Christensen), an associate editor of The New Republic until 1998, when he was found to be fabricating stories. The film operates at four levels. One level consists of a few voiceovers, in which Glass tries to present his own point of view. The second level is a lecture about magazine journalism that he presents to a high school journalism class at his alma mater, Highland Park High School, a Detroit suburb. The third level is a chronology of Glass's tenure on The New Republic. The fourth level consists of titles at the end of the film that update filmviewers on the current status of some of the major figures in the film. The most informative part of the film is a description, step by step, of how an idea for a story moves through a process of fact checking, writing, rewriting, scrutiny by a lawyer, as well as a presentation to a staff meeting, where the median age of fifteen writers is twenty-six; Glass is booted out at age twenty-four. In addition, filmviewers see that there are several hierarchical levels--an apprentice writer, an associate editor, the senior editor, and the publisher Martin Peretz. (The latter, played by Ted Kotcheff, is portrayed as more interested in commas than in content.) How was Glass able to pull the wool over the eyes of so many over a period of two or more years? The answer is that Glass ingratiated himself into the good graces of everyone in the staff and mesmerized everyone at staff meetings by dramatizing phony stories that relied on facts which could not be rechecked because they were backed up by manufactured interview notes. The first article that arouses suspicion occurs in 1997, when Glass claims that delegates were getting plastered during a convention of conservative Republicans, drinking from small bottles of alcohol found in the minibar of a hotel suite, whereas the hotel has no minibars. Glass slides out of the false story by saying that he saw the kinds of small bottles found in minibars, so the occupants of the suite must have rented the small refrigerator from the hotel. The senior editor, Mike Kelly (played by Hank Azaria), verifies that the hotel does indeed rent small refrigerators, but he cannot recheck any other fact, so Glass is off the hook. In 1998, however, his fabrications about a supposed convention of computer hackers are spotted by Adam Penenberg (played by Steve Zahn) by the Forbes online news service.

The senior editor of The New Republic that year, Chuck Lane (played by Peter Sarsgaard), confronts Glass about persons identified in the story who do not answer telephone calls and places where events supposedly occurred that turn out to be nonexistent. Lane then fires him when he surmises that Glass is using his brother's telephone number to back up his lies. When Lane asks other associate editors to recheck facts in other stories, they agree that Glass deservedly was fired for making up 27 of the 41 articles that he penned. Next, The New Republic prints an apology to its readers, and presumably magazine journalism gets back to the serious business of informing the public. But there is a more important subtext to the message in the film, one missed by the superficial journalism of most film critics for the same reason. Glass delights his colleagues with trivial, gossipy stories with little policy relevance, and one offhand remark by another character early in the film is that Time increasingly is printing stories that might fit in People magazine. In short, Shattered Glass tells filmviewers that the content of magazine journalism is being dumbed down, partly because of the need to increase readers but mostly because the writers are too young to have enough experience and knowledge to write about real issues in a complex world. College courses in English and journalism evidently fail to provide the sagacity to undertake serious policy analysis. Lauded in the film as the inflight magazine of Air Force One, the reputation of The New Republic may have been damaged by a few phony stories, but the real apology to the readers should be that the American press has stopped playing the vital role of checking the government. Meanwhile, officeholders are following suit by promoting their own fabricated balderdash so that they can sacrifice the lives of real people, not only by tolerating millions of persons without health care insurance but also by committing thousands of troops to questionable military adventures. In short, politicians keep lying so long as the press is only interested in increased sales, and democracy is on the critical list. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Shattered Glass as best film raising consciousness about the need for more democracy and best film exposé of 2003. MH