Directed by Billy Ray. USA. 2003.

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"There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies" -  Walter Lippmann, 1920

Shattered Glass, written and directed by Billy Ray, depicts the rise and fall of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiansen), a young journalist found to have fabricated 27 of 41 articles written for the prestigious New Republic magazine in the late 1990s. Though Shattered Glass is not as hard-hitting an expose of corrupt journalistic practices as I would have preferred, it is nonetheless a compelling and riveting piece of narrative entertainment that kept me involved from start to finish. Based on Buzz Bissinger's September, 1998 article in Vanity Fair magazine, the film parallels the recent saga of New York Times reporter Jayson Blair who apparently made up or plagiarized portions of over thirty articles for the newspaper. 

As the film opens, Glass is an invited guest at his high school journalism class and tells the students about his career, chronicling his meteoric rise to fame as a star writer for the New Republic magazine. The movie then flashes back to his life as a journalist for TNR and how he charms writer Caitlin Avey (Chloe Savigny) and editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) with his engaging personality and lively, fresh, and entertaining writing. Sought after by magazines such as George, Rolling Stone, and Harpers, Glass is seen as modest, self-effacing, and thoroughly endearing, attributes that may have led the magazine's fact-checkers to give him the benefit of the doubt. It is only when Michael Kelly is fired (in reality for writing too many anti-Clinton columns) that serious question arises about Glass' credibility. Under new editor Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), his undoing begins.

After writing several dubious pieces such as an expose of a Young Republicans Convention that degenerated into debauchery, he finally reached his limit of deception with an article called "Hack Heaven". The article is about a young computer hacker who wormed his way into the good graces of a Jukt Micronics Corporation, and then made a sweetheart deal that was the envy of hundreds of other hackers attending a convention. When writer Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) at the now defunct web site Forbes Digital Tool begins asking questions, Lane is forced to reexamine his gee-whiz reporter's respect for truth and his own penchant for not rocking the boat, and confronts Glass in a series of low-key but dramatic encounters. Sarsgaard turns in a compelling performance as the editor who discovers the strength to stand up to Glass and his cronies on the staff and come to grips with what needs to be done.

In its investigation of behind-the-scenes journalistic ethics, Shattered Glass has been compared to All The President's Men, but a better comparison might be to Robert Redford's Quiz Show. In that film, television producers justified provided contestants on the game show 21 with answers to questions on the premise that they were only satisfying the public's craving for entertainment. Though we do not really get underneath Glass' motivations or the psychology that led him to lie, it is not really necessary. We can see that people such as Mr. Glass thrive in a culture in which novelty and sensationalism take precedence over facts and where news is fed to us by "star" reporters whose credibility is determined only by their attractiveness and ability to maximize the entertainment value of the news. In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, people are controlled not by a Big Brother inflicting pain but by technologies providing constant pleasure. In a culture in which entertainment is becoming more important than truth, we may not be that far away.

Howard Schumann
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