- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

There was an unusual commotion in the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel downtown last week. A convention of pimply young boys and their parents had gathered for the annual National Hackers Convention, and one 15-year-old had just scored a $1 million contract from a company whose database he had recently hacked into.

Rather than beat him at his own game, the company, Silicon Valley-based Jukt Micronics, apparently decided to pay the snotty desktop commando for his illicit know-how.

“I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. Show me the money!” the boy was screaming, to the cheers and applause of his fellow hackers….

OK, none of the above is true.

Washington insiders will recognize it as the fantasy cooked up by Stephen Glass for the last notorious piece, “Hack Heaven,” he wrote for New Republic magazine in 1998.

It was the fraudulent story, exposed by a Forbes magazine Web outlet, that finally put an end to his tissue of fabrications and lost him his job at the venerable magazine.

Billy Ray was, however, at the Jefferson recently, promoting “Shattered Glass,” the docudrama about Mr. Glass that he wrote and directed.

A 40-year-old screenwriter making his directorial debut, he was drawn to the tale of Stephen Glass from an idealistic love of journalism.

Raised by “typically Kennedy-loving liberal parents” near Los Angeles in the early 1970s, “I grew up in one of those houses where Woodward and Bernstein were heroes,” Mr. Ray says.

He has never met Mr. Glass, who now lives in New York City, awaiting admittance to the state bar, but he has become transfixed by the disgraced journalist, like a shadowy nemesis, a personification of all that has gone wrong with an entertainment-infected news media.

“I kept expecting him to show up at one of the film festivals,” Mr. Ray says. “I figured he’d pop up at Telluride [Colo.] or Toronto or Chicago or Boston. It never happened. I know he’s seen the movie, but he doesn’t seem to want to talk to me, which I understand.”

Is Mr. Glass a talented but deeply flawed character?

He has, it must be conceded, a certain flair for manufacturing good stories. “I think he would’ve made a great screenwriter, and may still,” Mr. Ray says.

Mr. Glass’ coining of a sex novelty called a Monicondom (named, phonily as it turned out, for Monica Lewinsky) might have been worthy of the satirical newspaper the Onion.

The writer-director demurs: “No, I don’t think Stephen could do that.” He’s not that funny.

Is Mr. Glass possibly something worse than a congenital liar, a sociopath even?

“It’s very hard for me to say,” Mr. Ray says. “The most consistent criticism I get of the movie is that I don’t explain why he did what he did. My feeling always was, I was not gonna put some pop-psychology reason into the movie.

“The ‘why’ didn’t terribly interest me; it’s not what I found compelling about the story. There are little hints, but that’s all they are.”

The movie paints a picture of an overburdened Glass, struggling to make deadlines for a bevy of high-profile glossies, including Rolling Stone and George, while also taking night classes at Georgetown University’s law school.

There are intimations, too, that Mr. Glass was under severe pressure from his parents, Highland Park,Ill. high achievers who demanded the best from their son.

“Yes, of course, he was raised in one of those houses where he was expected to function at a very high level,” Mr. Ray says. “But so were we all. I don’t know anybody who didn’t grow up in that house.”

For him, it was enough that Mr. Glass did the deed; his acts, and the dogged loyalty of his office mates, who wanted to believe the best about him, were enough to make a great story with appeal far beyond the relatively small universe of wonky cognoscenti and New Republic subscribers who followed the Stephen Glass affair.

“The thing that [then New Republic editor] Chuck Lane talked about when I first met him is the amount of contempt that’s necessary to do what he did: contempt for the people around him, contempt for the magazine, contempt for journalism as a whole.

“That’s a perfect word to describe the necessary psychology,” Mr. Ray says. “It can’t just be panic to do what he did, continually. I can see maybe once. ‘OK, I’m late. I’m buried. I’m in trouble. I’m gonna pipe this story so that I don’t get fired.’

“But when you’ve done it 27 times — that we know of, and it may have been more — and you’re going into staff meetings and telling these huge whoppers, that does show a certain amount of contempt.”

Mr. Lane lent his name to the movie, as did the late Michael Kelly, who was fired from his editorship of the magazine halfway though Mr. Glass’ tenure, but others who worked at the magazine at the time, including Hanna Rosin and Margaret Talbot, are reflected in composite characters.

“In some cases there were sources of mine at TNR who just wanted to be anonymous,” Mr. Ray says. “There was no reason to burn those people.”

Some characters were created from whole cloth. Like a batty old receptionist, who delivers the movie’s most delicious insight: If only the magazine had run pictures, like People and other down-market celebrity rags, Stephen Glass would never have gotten away with his lies.

In reality, the insight was Mr. Ray’s own. “On my first trip to D.C. on this story, I was walking through the New Republic offices with Chuck, and I said, ‘Did it ever occur to you that if you guys had pictures this couldn’t have happened?’

“He stopped. He said, ‘No, that hadn’t occurred to me.’”

Meanwhile, Mr. Glass is writing again. There was the barely disguised autobiographical novel, “The Fabulist.” He’s also, appallingly, writing magazine features again.

Two months ago, Mr. Glass was hired by Rolling Stone to write an article on Canada’s newly lax marijuana laws.

Thanks to zeitgeist reminders like “Shattered Glass,” however, Stephen Glass will never live down his professional misdeeds. “It will always hang over him,” Mr. Ray says, with a clear measure of pride.

Has he read “The Fabulist”?

“No,” he says, wearily. “I think I’ve read enough Stephen Glass.”

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