17 May 2008

Hack Heaven and aesthetics

Tomorrow will be the tenth anniversary of the publication of a story in The New Republic, under the byline of Stephen Glass, titled "Hack Heaven."

To be technical, I don't know when the relevant issue of TNR actually hit newsstands or went out in the mail to subscribers, but the date it had on it was "May 18, 1998". So we'll take tomorrow as the anniversary.

This was the beginning of the end for Glass' spectacular career of fabrications.

Here's a link to a piece by Adam Penenberg that unravelled it and spoke to the issue of how such things can be unravelled, how difficult it can be to prove a negative. That of course is the difficulty upon which the Glass' of the world play for as long as they can manage.

There had been incidents, earlier in Glass' brief career, that might have served as red flags. But the Penenberg riposte proved effective, and Glass was soon unemployed and in disgrace. That September, his rise and fall was the subject of a lengthy profile in Vanity Fair "Shattered Glass" which referred to Hack Heaven in particular as "the most sustained fraud in modern journalism."

Glass is periodically the subject of "where are they now" stories which tell us -- last I knew -- that he is a paralegal somewhere, and/or a member of a comedy troup.

There are some psychologically intriguing aspects to the story. More so, IMHO, that there are to certain other journalistic scandals. Most fraud in this area comes from the unfortunate but not-at-all-mysterious combination of ambition and sloth. It's easier to make stuff up than to do the work, collect the facts, and then write up a story that stays true to them.

And it's a LOT easier to end up with a compelling end product if one makes it up. The problem with doing the spadework is that it doesn't necessarily uncover hidden treasure at all. You can dig a deep hole where your metal detector went off, sweating all the way, and end up with nothing more than a rusty old metal pipe.

If you combine ambition with sloth then, you want the big story and ... you make it up. Or maybe you've got a legitimate story but you feel compelled to make stuff up to fill in compelling details. Such were the relatively uninteresting -- though high-profile -- fabrications of a Jayson Blair.

But in Glass' case the vice of "sloth" makes no appearance. In creating back-up for Hack Heaven, he created a shell website and a voice-mail account for a company he had invented. He had fake business cards printed up for that company's supposed executives. He created "interview" notes. A more slothful person might have actually preferred researching and writing a true story to doing all this work for a phony one.

The lesson: maybe sloth has its upside? Nay ... there has to be a better lesson in there than that. On Thursday I wrote about the movie "Hoop Dreams," and the aesthetics of the documentary film -- the challenge of creating structure and preserving focus without straying from the facts -- and the challenge of accepting the loose ends that inevitably arise in such works.

What is true of film is true in print as well. The art of veracity is inherently tricky. There is always the danger that the product won't be artful enough, that it will end up dry-as-dust and/or derivative. The extreme of this danger is plagiarism. On the other hand, there is also the danger that the product will be too artful, that it wil fly off into fantasy. The extreme of this danger is ... Stephen Glass.

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