Stephen Glass, the wunderkind journalist who was discovered to have fabricated dozens of New Republic articles in 1998, is in trouble. This time, it’s his law career that has come to a screeching halt: The California Supreme Court blocked the writer-turned-paralegal from practicing law in the state late last month.
But you don’t need to pass a state bar or obtain a license to work in journalism. Before he chases Jayson Blair down the motivational speaking rabbit hole, let’s welcome Stephen Glass back into the fold. Seriously.
Not because he’s necessarily redeemed himself of his journalistic sins. Adam L. Penenberg, the one-time Forbes.com writer who exposed Glass, suggested in a recent ebook excerpt that Glass is far from reehabilitating himself. But even if Penenberg is right, it doesn’t much matter. The simple fact is that Glass can’t possibly mess up journalism more than we have already in the years since his downfall.
Consider the transformations that have struck media since 1998. Inaccuracies have always plagued journalism to some extent, well before Glass came to prominence, but as Esquire’s Luke O’Neil pointed out recently, “What is new is that we’re barely even apologizing for increasingly considering the truth optional.” Our profession, in other words, has been complicit in creating a culture that values speed and eyeballs over accuracy. Think about it: In recent months, we’ve mistakenly passed off “epic” viral hoaxes as truth, farfetched satire as reliable reporting, and heartwarming photo cons as news — and that’s just the tip of the Highly Shareable iceberg. At least Stephen Glass knew when he was feeding you lies.
So sure, Glass should probably keep his distance from the sort of longform magazine reporting that he became famous — and then infamous — for at TNR. But even if he didn’t, does anyone seriously think he’d be able to get away with the sort of fraud he managed in the mid-to-late 1990s? “Hack Heaven,” the 1998 story that brought him down, was invented wholesale from scratch — and it wasn’t his only made-up story. That’s a deception entirely more brazen than the fabricated quotations that brought down Jayson Blair. And at a high-profile magazine, neither scenario would likely to go undetected for long today.
One of the upsides of today’s instant-reaction media economy is that everyone and anyone’s a factchecker, so if professional editors fail to sniff out fraud — as they did in Glass’ case — the rest of the internet steps in. Consider the case of Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced New Yorker staffer who was caught plagiarizing some of his own blog posts before he was nabbed for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in his book, Imagine. After a blog post by Lehrer with recycled material—fittingly titled “Why Smart People Are Stupid”—appeared on The New Yorker site, media blogger Jim Romenesko caught the flub within a week. A more recent editorial blunder, Grantland’s “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” story, generated a swift and deafening backlash on social media for the way it treated its subject. Site editors apologized within the week.
Such is the paradox of Big Viral journalism: it’s easier than ever to fool the internet, but it’s also easier than ever to be found out within days, if not hours. Glass’ fabrications were vast, deeply layered, and slow to unravel. So his punishment has been accordingly long-lasting.
But after a 16-year banishment, there’s room for Glass yet. In 2014, dozens upon dozens of journalism jobs entail little, if any, traditional reporting skills. Glass’ vivid (if overeager) imagination should make him a desirable candidate in an online setting where sites will do anything to stand out from the dozens of others posting the same story within the hour. Be honest: Wouldn’t you like to see the sort of listicles BuzzFeed staffer Stephen Glass might serve up? Couldn’t his sense of drama make for some really weird, fun Girls recaps?
You don’t need a license or a spotless record to produce that sort of thing. It would instead be up to Glass’ editors and readers to hold him to whatever journalistic standards they still believe in. And with his backstory, at least, they’d hopefully be alert to any red flags.