Princeton Professor Discusses The Art of Deception In Media
The difference between aspiring to be a true journalist or a "big shot reporter" was discussed at the Princeton Public Library on Thursday following the screening of Shattered Glass, a film based on the true story of a Washington D.C. reporter who was caught incorporating fiction into his nonfiction stories.
The discussion was led by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Starr, a sociology professor at Princeton University.
The film was part of the library's summer film series, "Media On Film," which is showing four works about the media that were chosen by library staff and the Princeton Teen Film Committee.
Shattered Glass (2003) is based on the true story of 25-year-old Stephen Glass (played by Hayden Christensen), a journalist for The New Republic who had been working there for three years before his editor, Charles Lane, discovered that he had fabricated all or parts of 27 of his 41 stories. Mr. Lane has since said that it's quite possible Mr. Glass would still be fabricating stories if it hadn't been for a reporter at Forbes magazine who investigated one of Mr. Glass's stories and discovered he had falsified names, phone numbers, email addresses, and Web sites to fool the magazine's fact checker.
Mr. Glass was fired from The New Republic and lost contracts with all the other magazines he had been writing for, including GQ, Rolling Stone, Harper's, and George. Before he lost his job in 1998 he was making more than $100,000 annually. Following the incident, he left journalism and went on to law school, and has written a book based on what happened, The Fabulist: A Novel (2003).
An author and journalist, Mr. Starr was asked to speak at the library on the film as he is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, a liberal political magazine which competes with The New Republic.
Mr. Starr received the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and the Bancroft Prize in American History for his book, The Social Transformation of the Media. He received the 2005 Goldsmith Book Prize for his most recent book, The Creation of the Media.
Following the screening, which was the first time he had viewed the film, Mr. Starr told his audience that the The New Republic and The American Prospect have often employed each other's writers, but he had luckily never encountered Mr. Glass.
However he did recall a similar instance which had happened to him was while he was working for Ralph Nader in the 1970s. He had hired a Vietnam Veteran to work with him over the summer on a piece, and later discovered that everything the man had told him was plagiarized, and had to fire him.
Mr. Starr said that many magazines like The New Republic are forced to hire young reporters as the job doesn't pay well, and because the staff is young they need to keep an eye on them. However, he added, at a certain point "you pass a threshold of confidence in their work," which may have been the case with Mr. Glass.
Mr. Starr said that one of the mistakes that The New Republic made was not being skeptical enough of Mr. Glass's often entertaining but outlandish stories because they always seemed to be a cut above the rest of the staff.
"The New Republic wanted to be entertaining; that was their blunder," he said, adding that based on Mr. Glass's character in the movie, he appeared to be "ingratiating and manipulative."
Following the incident with Mr. Glass as well as the more recent incident with New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, one audience member questioned whether the media is generally more dishonest today than it used to be.
Mr. Starr said he believes that today it should actually be more difficult to falsify information because so many sources are readily available on the Internet to confirm facts.
"Shattered Glass is a moral tale for our time," said Mr. Starr in a separate interview. "I am just thankful that as an editor I've never had to deal with a con-artist as devious as Stephen Glass."
Other films that will be shown in July as part of the library's "Media On Film" series are The Insider on July 7, Control Room on July 14, and Network on July 21. The series will conclude on July 28 with the Student Film and Video Festival.
For more information, call Teen Services Librarian Susan Roth at (609) 924-9529, ext. 247, or visit www.princetonlibrary.org/teens.