The Dilemma Between Telling the Truth & Making Money

shattedred glass
Fig.1: Shattered Glass (2003)

Shattered Glass (2003)
Director: Billy Ray
Hayden Christensen
Peter Sarsgaard
Chloë Sevigny
Hank Azaria
Melanie Lynskey
Steve Zahn

By Yoshifumi Kobayashi and Rebecca Doser

Shattered Glass (Fig. 1) is based off of the September 1998 Vanity Fair article by H.G. Bissinger in which he chronicles the rise in popularity during the 1990’s of Stephen Glass‘ journalistic career at The New Republic. It is not until a significant and widespread journalistic fraud is exposed to the world that Glass’s success and moral reliability is questioned and his fabrication of 27 articles is revealed.

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Fig.2: His colleagues are  listening to his fascinating “story.” No one even bothers to doubt whether it is true or not. It’s worth listening and publishing as long as it attracts people to buy into it and further build circulation.

In the opening scene of this movie, Stephen narrates that, “journalism is the art of capturing behavior,” so “it’s the people you find” not political content that “makes a story memorable.” This is how Stephen worked and further, how he sold hundreds of thousands of issues throughout his career of The New Republic, which was established in 1914. In other words, he drew a story in the same process as one would create a piece of art so that it could fascinate readers and increase circulation, the total number of issues of a magazine/publication that are sold (Baran, 2015, p. 108). This made him feel innocent about what he was doing as he insisted “l didn’t do anything wrong” in the movie, meanwhile, he purposely fabricated all or parts of the information in his articles.  People found his stories entertaining (Fig.2), so they were published, bought and read. Stephen knew who his audience was, and everyone admired his young, shining talent.

Stephen Glass’ work ethic as a trustworthy reporter along with his manipulation of facts in order to attract the masses are both clear examples of an attempt to take advantage of readers’ ease in investing in magazines that solely embody topics of interest to them because, “the power of magazines is a personal experience” (Baran, 2015, p.104). Glass knew how to intrigue, sensationalize and exaggerate news in order for it to be read by many people. He embedded yellow journalism, early 20th-century journalism emphasizing sensational sex, crime and disaster news (Baran, 2015, p. 77), into his writing for a significant amount of time resulting in his news stories being unlike “boring policy stories.” People were becoming increasingly platform agnostic, having no preference for where they access media content (Baran, 2015, p. 41), which further led people to  fail to question the sources of their news more and more.

It was not until David Keene, the Chairman of the American Conservative Union, questioned Glass’ depiction of Republicans at a convention, that the social construction of reality was questioned in what the majority was reading from Glass’ news writing. We found this similar to The Truman Show in Truman’s realization that his life is being socially constructed for him by the powerful Christof at the beginning of the movie. Truman is born into an agency in which Christof holds the power to interpret and shape his culture and habits but Truman eventually realized this, broke away and interpreted the world for himself.  In a way, Glass was a ‘news genius,’ which is actually the Japanese title for this movie. He fabricated stories and facts and as a result, he had no sources of information to validate the accusations put against him in the movie. Glass became so powerful in his ability to intrigue the majority in his falsified stories without anyone (like Truman) realizing that the fundamental elements of media literacy, the ability to effectively and efficiently comprehend and use any form of mediated communication (Baran, 2015, p.21), was being falsified right before their eyes. With this said, Steven Glass obtained his powerful position at The New Republic at a very young  age because news media thrives off of excitement, exaggerated detail and intrigue, no matter if it is fully true or not.

Glass was the youngest reporter at The New Republic (1990’s). In fact, the median age of working at the company at that time was 26-year-old, which is just a few years after undergraduate seniors graduate from their universities.  Glass mentioned in the movie, “You are underpaid, your hours are brutal, but what you write gets read by people who matter?” Companies hire youth because they can pay them less and use them more. Those who are young workers do not get paid a lot because they are generally inexperienced and at the bottom of the professional position pyramid in a news industry; however, they are expected to work even harder than elders because they are expected to have more stamina and are members of a generation of the youth that make up the majority of our current readers.

Fig. 3: United Airline’s ‘Hemispheres’ had very high circulation in 2011. ‘Three Perfect Days’ series is its signature.

Thus, Glass was easily hired to work for The New Republic, an in-flight magazine, which fits the criteria of controlled circulation, meaning that the airline company is providing a magazine at no cost to readers who meet some specific set of advertiser-attractive standards (Baran, 2015, p.108). As a successful example of inflight magazines and controlled circulation, Hemispheres (Fig.3) abroad the United Airline, scored as the best-selling magazine among airline in-flight magazines, according to Cision research in 2011. This magazine covers the latest news in business, travel, fashion, and culture. Its coverage is dominated by entertainment that is related to the readers’ interest, thus these in-flight magazines are custom publishing magazines, publications specifically desgined for an individual company seeking to reach a narrowly defined audience (Baran, 2015, G-3).

Generally speaking, while The New Republic was established as an in-flight magazine by Ernest Hemingway, its ability to intrigue people to read what matters was also an element of its classification as a brand magazine that is “complete with a variety of general interest articles and features” for “readers having demographic characteristics similar to those of customers with whom it typically does business” (Baran, 2015, p.112). Therefore,  inflight magazines and brand magazines alike are entertainment for businessmen and businesswomen. Glass also reported that, “what you write gets read  by people who matter.” For him, the “people who matter” are the businessmen who are interested in in-flight magazines as entertainment. As a young, inexperienced reporter, the ability to publish content for a specific demographic of businessmen and woman abroad flights to start off his career would have triggered his fabrication of events just to make his stories appealing and attractive to many.

Apparently, Stephen Glass put his greatest respect to his audience. Is this wrong to have an allegiance with his audience? If journalists have an allegiance to their publishers, they must sell more magazines in order to maintain their relationship with the publishers. In order to sell more magazines, journalists need to make magazines interesting enough so that people are willing to pay for their magazines.  So, journalists eventually need to be loyal to their readers to continue this bond or else skepticism will arise when concrete evidence can not be found and fabrication is brought to the forefront by publishers. On the other hand, readers expect journalists to provide us with the truth, but would not buy a magazine if it did not interest them. Thus, when journalists put their readers as their priority, they are faced with the dilemma between telling the truth and making money through entertainment and attraction.  The truth is not always entertaining.  Fabrication should not be an option yet, journalists constantly face the hardship of allegiance to the truth and making money and a name for the publication. It be hard to capture an “attractive” truth for every news issue, thus fabrication becomes a prospective option. The New Republic ended up  being honest about their fabricated articles and apologized to their readers; they finally told the truth. The truth… must have been very interesting to readers.

Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 4.” Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. Print