‘Shattered Glass’: Journalism vs ethics

In the late nineties young journalist Stephen Glass caused quite a stir when it was discovered that he fabricated, in full or in part, 27 of the 41 articles he wrote for highly regarded political magazine The New Republic.

Shattered Glass (2003), directed by Billy Ray, depicts the true story of Glass’s fall from grace. He was perhaps the most eager in a new generation of budding young writers for a publication often described as the ‘in-flight magazine of Air Force One.’ It also looks at the laborious and deeply flawed journalistic fact checking practices in place at the time, as well as the ethical issues that face a journalist, and more importantly, an editor.

Glass (played by Hayden Christensen) felt extreme pressure to keep delivering the compelling and witty copy he had become so well known for. Cue a genius computer hacking kid jumping up and down on a table screaming “Show me the money!” (as well as demanding a life time subscription to Playboy) All this in front of a group of executives from ‘big-time’ software company ‘Jukt-Micronics’ hoping to pay hackers extortionate amounts to make their computer systems hack-proof. Well, it fooled people at the time. This is but one of Glass’s too good to be true character creations for his bogus article ‘Hack Heaven.’

You can’t really talk about Hayden Christensen without referring back to his widely panned stint as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. ‘Wooden’ and ‘awkward’ are just a few words that spring to mind, but if ever there is a performance that could be used to fight Christensen’s corner, then this is it. It’s hard to tell whether he’s playing a creepy and irritating character in a very clever way, or he’s simply a bit irritating. Either way, the fact that Glass was alleged to have been a schizophrenic and more than a little bit unstable certainly works in Christensen’s favour, whether he intended it or not.

Hayden Christensen creeps it up as Stephen Glass

The only part I found a bit of a stretch was that anyone could like this man. Charming and hilarious he was not, and as his work colleagues shriek with laughter and applaud his outrageous stories (before he drowns himself in false humility) I feel the overwhelming urge to shudder, rather than feel smitten. 

Although you may think Christensen’s portrayal of Glass would make or break the film, it almost doesn’t matter when you have such great support from that of Peter Sarsgaard, who was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2004 for his performance as unpopular new editor Charles ‘Chuck’ Lane. Previous editor Michael Kelly, played by Hank Azaria, had built a strong rapport with the group of writers, but his swift dismissal to make way for Chuck did not earn the new editor the same respect. Sarsgaard was subtle but incredibly engrossing as an editor in the middle of an increasingly complex and moral dilemma.

Chuck is initially shown to be little more than a petty butt-kisser and is repeatedly accused of holding a vendetta against anyone, in particular Glass, who is still loyal to Kelly. Perhaps the turning point for Chuck is an incredibly absorbing scene in which he begins frantically riffling through old issues of the magazine. We hear Stephen’s voice in his head, rattling of many a colourful and questionable line, and the realisation of what he has to do and indeed the depth of the young journalists deception, is written all over his face.

Which begs the question, which is more important: protecting what could just be a naive kid that made a mistake, or the integrity of the publication? And more importantly, should the truth be heard? Blimey, it’s all getting a bit heavy. Another interesting issue raised is what makes a good editor and what makes a truly great one. Although both Kelly and Glass had a strong relationship, there are creeping doubts even before the initial scandal.“It’s in my notes.” Repeats Stephen, over and over again. For Kelly, this reassurance is enough to turn a blind eye. But still, he’s the good guy right? He’s the REAL editor here, right?

The climax is inevitable, but the film cleverly turns up the tension at just the right moments until the eventual collapse of Glass’s world. A world you are completely immersed in due to the drab but realistic environment, enhanced by the drama-documentary style.  Shattered Glass has a reputation for being one of the most accurate and well researched portrayals of an actual event. Rather ironically, every line in the script was meticulously checked with the journalists who were working there at the time.

A process that was of course cleverly evaded by Glass himself whilst he was churning out the ‘cooked’ copy and printing it as solid fact. It’s certainly a must watch for any aspiring journalist, and a thrilling ride for anyone who isn’t. It will however, put the fear of death in you, should you ever get a bit sloppy with your fact checking in the future. Be warned.

“Are you mad at me?” He retorts when put under any kind of scrutiny, puppy dog eyes galore. Yes you think, I’d believe him, this could happen. And indeed it did, 27 times.

Click to comment
To Top