Saturday, July 16, 2011

In praise of Stephen Glass (18 Feb 2009)

I was sent down memory lane by this metafilter link to an archive of the work of the New Republic's comedic fabricator, Stephen Glass. I can understand why other journalists and pious publishing types vilify Glass, but he was an extremely engaging writer, and I can testify that his pieces single-handedly convinced to me to renew my TNR subscription back in 1998. I used to look forward to his pieces because they were funny, and -- thanks to the invented sources -- coherent and compelling. There was always a punch line quote from someone to punctuate any of Glass's rhetorical points. They were so effectively constructed that I used some of his pieces as models back when I was teaching composition at the University of Arizona. I may have done so even after he was exposed as a fraud. (I wished my students could make up stuff that good, and even better, know how to deploy it in an essay. Indeed. would have preferred that they make up suitable supporting evidence for their arguments, if only to see that they actually understood the concept of "evidence.")

Since I never regarded his pieces as much more than entertainment, nothing about what Glass did ever bothered me particularly. It wouldn't surprise me if the sorts of things he did still went on all the time in the press, perhaps in less elaborate ways and to slighter degrees (yielding less interesting stories, in the end). Now and then, journalists, most of whom are in good faith, I'm sure, record some heinous wrongdoing and document it for history, and perhaps these efforts will bear fruit at some point in time. But such achievements seem like by-products of professional newsgathering. Readers of any news publication are naive if they believe that they are getting some form of verified truth there. Even when it is fact-checked, it is still biased by the nature of the medium itself, and the commercial information gathering process. In the presentation of news, obviously, there are conventions writers and editors adhere to in order to whittle down events and shape incidents into a recognizable product. The boundaries that separate this institutionalized process from what Glass did as a maverick is somewhat arbitrary. Sure, Glass didn't do straight reporting; he pioneered a more fascinating reality-TV-style of reporting -- only he didn't have the luxury of doing a casting call to find the people that would fit into his prefab narrative frame.

Obviously there are exceptions, but some reporters are little more than diligent stenographers, following a ethical code is primary purpose is to garner them access to powerful sources who know they can trust the reporters to say what they want the public to hear. Few publishers have the resources to fund investigative reporting anymore, and most readers don't especially want it, when there is celebrity gossip going on 24/7. It's also hard to look past the fact that throughout the Bush years, investigative journalists were tirelessly exposing scandal after scandal, and in the end it didn't change a thing. In part, this may be because the surfeit of information and the panoply of outlets makes it all meaningless as anything but a distraction. It sometimes seems that there is next to no venue in which a story can run where it will have a transfiguring impact on how the world is perceived, that would galvanize some sort of resistance or overwhelming unified protest. Instead, any "important" story may be buried with a flood of new details and reactions and interpretations and repudiations, and ultimately all that comes through is the commercial purposes that all this dissemination of information -- all this brokering of audience attention -- serves. An "important" story is simply one that delivers a lucrative audience segment to an advertiser.

Glass seemed to grasp this superlatively cynical perspective intuitively, and he transformed it into gold -- even if it was fool's gold, no one had really mistaken its value. His editors knew that his stories would entertain readers like me, readers who didn't want to change the world or have their policy presumptions or political biases tested. I wanted my biases confirmed with implausibly perfect and uproariously funny examples of what I already thought was happening with DARE programs and young Republican groups and hackers and all the other juicy topics Glass confabulated about. By spinning engaging tales out of his near-pathological desire to be liked and to earn approval, Glass hijacked the organ of the press for his own piddling purposes; he brought TNR down to the level of a Facebook page, avant le lettre.

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