The world premiere of Shattered Glass, which revisits reporter Stephen Glass's egregious violations of journalist ethics at the New Republic, found me over last Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Festival in Colorado. There, I sat down with Charles "Chuck" Lane, the New Republic editor (he's now a Washington Post reporter) who blew the whistle on Stephen Glass's fabricating of essays.
How did Stephen Glass get away with all those made-up stories at The New Republic?
Good question. "When I first saw Shattered Glass I sat next my dad," said Lane, who served as an advisor to the movie, "and my dad said, 'How come you didn't catch him?'" Lane, who is played with fierce, steely command by Peter Sarsgaard on screen (the great performance of 2003?), explained the detective-work failures of The New Republic to his Telluride audience. "The New Yorker has thirty fact-checkers, we could hire only two people. Plainly, we had too much reliance on author's notes. And Steve actually did some real reporting. His stories would have one chapter that's real, one chapter made up. In one story he mentioned the town clerk of Turnip Seed, South Carolina. I was sure it was a lie. I checked, and he'd actually called her."
A young man in the Telluride audience admitted that he kind of admired Glass because of the youthful reporter's astonishing chutzpah.
Lane found that comment disturbing. "The thing you don't see is the trail of personal destruction. He was very close to the young staff people. At least one person was thinking of quitting because of the firing of Stephen. They woke up one day to see he'd been hurting them big-time. We all love a rogue in America, a confidence artist, But if you were in the thick of it, you wouldn't have appreciated it. It was a systematic con, such an abuse of friends and colleagues. Those on staff he was closest to? None have spoken to him in five years, and don't want to."
When we talked one-on-one, I asked Lane how Glass, an editor of the school newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania, got to The New Republic anyway. "He came on in 1995, as Andrew Sullivan's intern. Steve ran errands for him. There was an interregnum in early 1996. That when Steve started writing. He got a toehold when no one was in charge, before Michael Kelly."
A big dramatic moment in the movie is when publisher Martin Peretz fires Kelly, the popular editor, and annoints Lane the new editor, over the vocal objections of much of the staff. According to Lane, Stephen Glass recognized a glad-handing opportunity for himself. "He knocked on my door, asked how I was doing? It was the same day I was appointed, a Friday. We talked for twenty minutes. He was very cooperative, comforting, do I need any help? He was the only staff to do it."
How did Peter Sarsgaard do such a smashing job being Chuck Lane? "We talked on the phone several times, maybe for an hour-and-a-half, and later I came up to the set in Montreal. He wanted me to tell my story, what had gone through my mind. He wanted to hear my voice, but he was pretty much on his own. His approach was that he's not doing an impression of Chuck Lane, that he can't get into the business of copying me.
But me seeing the movie? It's an out-of-body experience. There are points where it's eerie how close the film comes to reality, like the telephone calls Peter makes, editor to editor. But when he's giving Chloe Sevigny a lecture, I never did that. Her character, Caitlin, is a composite, who stands in for the sentiment of a lot of the staff."
Is Lane embarrassed being the hero of the movie, catching, and then firing, Glass? "A little embarrassed, but I'll take it. When it all happened in reality, I didn't feel like a hero. I felt very defensive. I never guessed people would say, 'He took action.' I was so wrapped up in my failure, my responsibilty to The New Republic."
Was he ultimately applauded by the staff, what we see in the movie? "As I remember, they did clap. If it's not true, I'll feel really silly having said it's true." At this point, Lane supplied me with the names of two people I should contact to verify his recollection. (I never did.)
I did say, "I hate movies that have people applauding the hero."
Lane retorted: "I hate those movies too, except this one."
(Boston Phoenix December, 2003)