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'Glass': In many ways, it's the flip side to Watergate


In the opening moments of Shattered Glass, the new movie about the colorful reporter whose fabricated stories wreaked havoc on The New Republic in the mid-1990s, there's a reference to All The President's Men, the Watergate film that made heroes of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

A young New Republic staffer telephones the political and cultural magazine's editor, Charles Lane, to warn him that the young Stephen Glass may be cracking under scrutiny. The call is made from a parking lot in the nation's capital. You half expect Deep Throat, Woodward's notorious unnamed source, to emerge from the shadows - as Hal Holbrook did in Alan J. Pakula's 1976 film.

Billy Ray, the director of Shattered Glass, cheerfully acknowledged his debt to Pakula's film. "We talked about All the President's Men maybe 500 times in pre-production," he said. "The night before we began shooting, I rented out a ballroom in Montreal and screened All The President's Men for the entire cast and crew. We wanted it to be that good."

A generation apart, the two movies serve as bookends, twin treatments of paranoia at opposite ends of the spectrum. One offers a vision of a nation under the rule of a conspiracy to consolidate power; the other portrays a small yet lauded publication corroded from within by a single, corrupted writer.

Yet, these two narratives are tied together more closely than that distance might suggest. After Watergate, attendance at journalism schools swelled. Investigative reporting developed a cult-like following, both inside and outside the profession. And all of that was accelerated by the publication of the book and release of the movie All the President's Men. Woodward and Bernstein (portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) became stars, proving that even once-anonymous print journalists could become celebrities in a broadcast age. The phenomenon perhaps reached its purest form with the recent Post columns of Tina Brown about the fabulous, celebrity-filled life led by ... Tina Brown.

In that sense, Glass can be seen as Woodward and Bernstein's unwanted progeny. He was ambitious, writing for The New Republic, which has served as a poorly paid training ground for many respected journalists. But he was also constantly hustling for assignments from bigger-name glossies, reportedly including George, Harper's and Rolling Stone magazines. By the age of 23, Glass found he was being rewarded not for exposing Watergate-like abuses, but for recounting increasingly offbeat, richly detailed and largely fabricated tales.

The two movies share an authentic sense of place. Newsrooms in both films are painstakingly reproduced, replete with office politics and debates about journalism.

While both operate as procedural stories, there's one key difference in their construction: The title character and villain of All The President's Men, Richard M. Nixon, stays off-screen, except in grainy television clips. The title character and villain of Shattered Glass is in evidence everywhere - with actor Hayden Christensen playing the obsequious, ingratiating, self-deprecating character who undermines the integrity of the magazine.

Ray has suggested his film represents the ultimate triumph of the values of journalism over the treachery of its fawning, appealing star-in-the-making. But, he said, "the emotional place of the movie is this: What would happen if the least popular kid in high school had to take on the most popular kid?"

Editor Lane, as played by Peter Sarsgaard, doesn't quite join in the raucous laughter at Glass's recounting of his latest proposed article. When a reporter for an online offshoot of Forbes magazine raises questions about a story on a superstar teen-aged computer hacker, Lane asks for the business card of the hacker's supposed agent. Glass responds that it's back at his apartment. Later, Glass says he found it in his refrigerator - such a detail! - and diffidently hands the card over to his boss, who rubs it between his fingers and thumb. It doesn't appear to be the card of a professional, Lane observes. Glass bemusedly agrees.

Lane came to the New Republic's top job with little support after the ouster of the beloved Michael Kelly by publisher Marty Peretz. There is a constant refrain in the movie that great editors are supposed to champion and defend their reporters against critics, and Kelly assuredly did that. (Kelly, a former Sun reporter, was killed earlier this year covering the war in Iraq.) When under sharpest attack, Christensen's Glass repeatedly blends repentance for his mounting errors with appeals to editors' loyalty.

"Stephen Glass took advantage of the very things that made Mike Kelly such a writer's editor," director Ray said. Lane, he said, "had very strong suspicions about Steve early on but had to be extremely cautious" because he lacked political support in the magazine's newsroom. "At least conceptually, an editor should defend his writer," Ray said. "It's the line that Kelly was struggling with."

Shattered Glass neatly reflects the contortions that fictionalized colleagues devoted to the young writer experience as they try to believe in him. He made slight, meaningless mistakes, they say. He was duped by hackers at a conference. The curlicues of logic are as complicated as the orbits of planets drawn by pre-Copernican astronomers seeking to accommodate a universe in which the sun travels about the Earth.

For all its extensive tutorials on how journalism works, however, the movie does not explicitly invoke the equally strong obligation that editors have to the truth - the most important bond tying them to their readers.

"I was waiting for the Lane character's counterpunch to Glass, that you're supposed to stand up for the truth," said Jack Shafer, editor at large and media critic for the online magazine Slate. As an editor, "when you make things up, I have no responsibility to you. That's a cylinder that should have been firing in that scene."

As Jonathan V. Last, online editor for The Weekly Standard, points out, strong doubts were expressed about Glass's work - which included too-vivid accounts of a triptych devoted to Alan Greenspan, the debauchery of a convention of young conservatives, the anti-drug program that fails on its own terms - in angry letters printed in The New Republic's own pages. Glass was allowed to respond in snarky kind. Kelly, betrayed for his loyalty, had roared like a lion. And Lane was slow to challenge Glass, too.

Lane ultimately forced Glass to take him on a tour of the location of the supposed hacker's convention in Bethesda, and confronted the hard truth that the story in his magazine could not have occurred as portrayed. It's a debilitating moment, followed by his look at past articles that prove too colorful by half. Lane's ultimate triumph is that he confronted the magazine's favorite son, who was corrupting its integrity. (Lane was also a consultant to the movie's producers, who paid him a modest fee.)

"In All the President's Men, the psychopath is at the top," said Shafer, who counts Lane and other former New Republic staffers among his friends. "In this movie, the psychopath is at the bottom. They're the things that drive the drama."

The New Republic has embraced Shattered Glass, featuring it in a recent cover story centering on a prominent photograph of Glass. When the movie had its debut in Washington last month, the magazine sponsored a party, toasting its affirmation of the value of truth over glitz.

That seems like much ado about not so very much, especially in comparison to that low-profile Watergate burglary story of 30 years ago that bubbled up into the defining event of its decade. Now there was a story worth celebrating.

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