The Law/Fact Dichotomy:
Law and Journalism in Shattered Glass
By Jamison Colburn
Shattered Glass, the film about "Fabulist"
reporter Stephen Glass, is not necessarily a movie about law,
justice or the practice of either. It's about the practice of
journalism in America today and specifically at one of its premier
institutions, The New Republic. But it pushes a very interesting
subtext about someone who wants to be a lawyer and in this respect
tells a great story. When I say "wants to be a lawyer,"
I mean to distinguish Glass-who apparently hungered for it-from
so many other who choose it for lack of something better to do.
The film doesn't just show Glass's transition to a new profession,
though. It also suggests how these two professions are becoming
more and more alike.
the movie and in real life Glass enrolls at Georgetown Law even
while his practice of journalism is taking him to seemingly fantastic
professional heights. Glass is clearly not one of the many in
law schools today who are there because a Political Science or
Philosophy major packaged them for little else. He is, you must
see, "successful" at what he is doing. Depending on
how you interpret Glass's character in the film, though, you
could take his story as either a parable about sham performances
generally or about an ambitious maniac who zeroes in on the precise
weaknesses of a system begging to be gamed for profit. That interpretive
choice, I'd wager, says something about what kind of lawyer (or
journalist) you'd be, have been, or are.
The practice of law and the
practice of journalism are very different and yet very similar.
Journalists live to report facts and usually they have "fact-checkers"
and editors who must independently verify the claims they are
about to make. For some facts, though, these third-parties are
without any real means of independent verification (say, for
quotes from sources whom the journalist has interviewed). On
some pieces, Glass intones at one point, "the only source
material available are the notes provided by the reporter himself."
The notes must be proof enough, at least until the recriminations
roll in on a published story. Cook up the right "record"
as Glass does habitually, in other words, and the institutional
check in place to safeguard veracity is easily circumvented.
Now I'll grant it is no help
that, at least in the film, Glass's superiors often seem anaesthetized
to clues suggesting-they're even slow finally to believe-that
Glass is a sham. And this seems as much because of how he pitches
his work and how popular his pieces are as it is because of the
"quality" of that work. Glass's pieces are good for
the bottom line and, in that, his bosses' casualness with "the
facts" might be rather familiar to many lawyers. If it were
cheap and profitable, why wouldn't an editor admire it enough
to take Glass's word as verification enough? Of course this is
not necessarily how it has to be: anyone can imagine a verification
system that would not print any story which hasn't been truly,
independently verified. We just can't imagine it successfully
competing with all the other "journalism" outlets in
the market today.
Throughout the film the audience
is shown Glass's version of journalism and its worth to outlets
like The New Republic, Harper's, and Rolling Stone. In the opening
scene, Glass narrates that the practice of journalism is "the
art of capturing behavior." It soon becomes clear that the
flash, panache, and unbelievable timeliness of his "scoops"
are what catapult him to his success so much more quickly than
the steadiness and method-and simple relevance-of his peers'
reporting. Richly, while all of this is going on the audience
catches the occasional glimpse of Glass in his office studying
and highlighting the all-too-identifiable casebook, hard at work
preparing, one surmises, for his truly desired profession.
Being trained as a lawyer and
as an academic (and therefore being as protective of "the
facts" as I flatter myself to be), I have to admit that
this is really what decided the interpretation of the film for
me. For, on balance, I think there are more Glasses in the world
than some (journalists) might like to admit. In fact, Glass's
particular mania is how Shattered Glass dovetails with
other recent scandals in journalism, most notably Jayson
Blair of The New York Times. Blair was also a meteoric success
whose reporting turned out to be, repeatedly and overtly, predicated
on bald fabrications that his paper failed to catch. One keeper
ethics said that, in the wake of so many of these scandals,
"[n]ews organizations face an uphill battle in regaining
the public's trust."
Now even in our post-modern
world, reporting like Glass's is "indefensible" in
the words of editor Charles Lane (who finally fired Glass after
he had defrauded the magazine and its readers in at least 27
of his 41 stories). For me, though, the scheme underscored how
much today's practice of journalism resembles the practice of
law. Because while each of the spectacular disgraces to news
organizations lately have involved violations of basic professional
ethics, what they've done is by now common in the practice of
law: they push the envelope of practice norms a shade too far.
It is perfectly acceptable in some newsrooms (from what I've
read and been told) to "composite" characters together
and make them seem like "real" sources, sources to
whom "real" statements are attributed. And of course
"real" reporters share a stage every day with people
whose very objective-whose ethos-is to make the games of politics
and world affairs more "entertaining" or more "homespun."
Glass's fall from The New Republic
to the humility of a seat in the Georgetown Law class (he graduated
in 2000 and has recently applied for admission to the New York
Bar) is meant as a tragedy it seems. Lane doesn't allow Glass
to take his Rolodex from his office as he is being booted, but
he does allow him his "law books"-an allusion to the
character of the profession that might still have him. Yet the
in several of American journalism's premier institutions today
is easily the bigger tragedy. The market predicament these institutions
face for the foreseeable future make them look like some law
firms I know: the profit motive dominates the professional culture.
In journalism the result is an overarching objective to entertain,
to titillate. In law it is an overarching need to serve the client.
If you also see that as the larger trope of this film, I would
bet that you've either: (1) practiced law long enough to have
seen it firsthand, (2) practiced journalism long enough to have
seen it firsthand, or (3) that you are an especially keen observer
of popular culture's portrayal of these professions.
Of course, an interpretive
choice has nothing to do with your moral character as a professional.
But anyone who still practices conscientiously in one of these
two fields today even while they spiral downward both in terms
of professionalism and public esteem (or, worse, after she has
personally encountered the ambitious maniac gaming a weak system)
will see in Shattered Glass a just, if fleeting, reckoning
between facts and norms.
Posted July 7, 2004