Democracies ultimately function through the power of the people to elect their leaders. But in between elections it is primarily the press that holds the politicos’ feet to the fire. An independent and ethical press is crucial in the best of times; it is indispensable at a time when governments (and the corporate oligarchies) display an arrogant disregard for the law and for the truth. Even as the facts are reported on the front pages, the current administration deals in the most egregious doublespeak, nothing less than Orwellian in its audaciousness. Most of the corporate crooks are going unpunished, left to enjoy their millions of misbegotten moolah. The quality daily press has reported regularly on all of these abuses–how much worse might it be if the light wasn’t shone on these shenanigans?
What happens, then,if the morally bankrupt behavior of our political and economic leaders, their self-serving greed, their ambition-driven, corrosive corruption of ethical standards infiltrates, like a virus, the fourth estate itself? It has done so, of course, as recent scandals at the New York Times and The New Republic make evident. It is the latter that is the subject of the pointed and alarming film, Shattered Glass.
The movie’s storyline is kept to the basics of actual events, as reported by Buzz Bissinger in an article in Vanity Fair. A star among the startlingly young (average age under 30) staff of The New Republic, Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) was a preppy wunderkind who went out of his way to ingratiate himself with other staff members. Their editor and mentor, Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), was fired by publisher Martin Peretz, who chose staffer Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) as Kelly’s replacement. Lane was resented by the staff, as most any replacement for Kelly likely would have been.
A Glass story about computer hackers caught the attention of the editor of Forbes Digital Tool, a short-lived online magazine focused on the new media. Reporter Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) checked out the Glass story, finding holes in it which become the basis for an article. Lane confronts Glass who supplies a less and less convincing stream of excuses. The ambitious young star visibly squirms as Lane digs into Glass’ "sources" and finds inconsistencies and outright falsifications–the story was a fiction. Glass, the pitch-meister, runs out of pitches. Glass, always quick with obsequious apologies, is equally as quick with new lies to cover the old.
On further investigation, well over half of the 41 articles Glass wrote for The New Republic turned out to be laced with falsehoods. He is fired and the reputation of The New Republic is dealt a serious blow.
The depth of Glass’ deceptiveness is placed into strong relief when it is understood that standard practice at the magazine was to have two editors go over every story, followed by a fact checker, a copy editor, the legal department, and then the entire sequence repeated when galley proofs are produced. Glass wrote stories that were not verifiable by published information, but that relied entirely on "sources," knowing that such material was less likely to be caught on review, especially in view of the corporate culture of the magazine which had a tone of crusading "we can change the world" idealism. Glass’ work played into the predilections of his peers.
The hero, of course, is Lane, who fulfilled his professional responsibility as an editor despite the resentment of his staff and the potential damage to his magazine. It was the right thing to do and it gives hope that the cult of deceipt that infects the highest powers in the United States today can be held in check if the press sustains the kind of courage and integrity demonstrated by Chuck Lane.
Director/screenwriter Billy Ray (Hart’s War) holds firmly to his strongly focused screenplay, drawing perceptive performances from the entire cast. There are no fireworks, fancy scenery, or overblown emotions here, but a powerful drama about real people whose stories carry a crucial message for our times.