In 1998, Stephen Glass was an eager and promising young journalist. He worked as an editor and journalist for The New Republic, a magazine that describes itself as uplifting the voice of “creative thinkers, united by a collective desire to challenge the status quo.” But while working for The New Republic, Glass proved himself to be perhaps too creative of a thinker. He was a fraud.
For three years, Stephen Glass provided gripping tales to his colleagues and the readers of The New Republic. As an editor and journalist at The New Republic, Glass quickly established himself as an invaluable asset to the editorial staff.Buzz Bissinger, a writer for Vanity Fair, believed that Glass’s “skill at creating incredibly complex scenes and… accommodating personality” contributed to his outstanding reputation and solidified his status as a respected journalist.
In May of 1998, Stephen Glass published an article titled “Hack Heaven” in The New Republic. In it, he exposed a “‘teenage computer hacker by the name of Ian Restil, who sought to extort thousands of dollars from a vulnerable corporation.” Initially, this article appeared plausible to most readers. Glass did not anticipate that his piece would reach Adam Penenberg, an editor for Forbes.com, then called Forbes Digital Tools, who found several inconsistencies throughout Glasses’ article. Penenberg’s discoveries signaled the beginning of Glass’s downfall as a journalist.
Initially, Forbes’ inquiry simply targeted “Hack Heaven.” Penenberg and his colleagues were unable to locate one of the main companies, Jukt Micronics, described in the article. Because of this, Forbes deemed “Hack Heaven” to be unverifiable due to the fact that they were unable to prove that Jukt Micronics ever existed. They soon uncovered a well-concealed, sinister web of deception that connected most of his work.
The New Republic’s fact checkers failed to detect Glass’ many deceptions. Michael Kelly, a journalist at The New Republic, was presented with accusations regarding the validity of Glass’s work, but he responded “by dashing off angry and vitriolic letters to the offended parties.” Glass befriended the fact checkers who reviewed his work, which made it difficult for them to accept any of the accusations against him. If anyone at The New Republic had any knowledge of Glass’s deceptions, it was never discussed or investigated. The New Republic’s internal investigation into Glass launched only after Forbes presented its findings, forcing The New Republic’s hand.
When the first search engine was created in 1990, Forbes and other news organizations quickly recognized it to be a crucial fact checking tool. Forbes searched for the companies mentioned in “Hack Heaven” against the Lexis-Nexusdatabase, a digital service that “provides access to full-text news, business, and legal publications, using a variety of flexible search options.” The search turned up only one result for Jukt Micronics: Glass’s story in The New Republic.
Prior to the introduction of digital tools, fact checking was conducted via word of mouth from colleagues, readers, and anyone who happened to stumble across the article. Because Glass’s colleagues fiercely defended him against any accusations, it is possible that his work might have remained unchecked if not for the search engine technology that made electronic fact checking possible. If Glass’s work had persisted in the absence of digital fact checking, it would place the verifiability of other works of journalism, into question. The persistence of Glass’s work, in the absence of digital fact checking, proves that electronic fact checking is a necessary and essential tool in the field of journalism that ensures authenticity and truth.
Twenty-first century Americans have developed a strong sense of distrust in the media, journalists, and the government. Because of this, journalists are constantly working to rebuild trust with the public. Integrity is a highly valued trait in all professions, but journalistic integrity specifically helps journalists establish a connection to their public audience and build a reputation. This is evident in Stephen Glass’s banishment from journalism and his failed attempt to become a lawyer. The social and political repercussions, which flowed from Glass’s case demonstrates the dire personal consequences that journalists faced at that time if they created pieces of fake news.
The internet has given journalists and the public an overwhelming number of sources to choose from. But it has not given everyone the impetus to fact check these sources, as it did when the first search engines came online. The internet has made it even easier for journalists and the public to detect lies and debunk them quickly. However, this universal ability to fact check, has allowed everyone to take fact checking for granted in a digital age when the volume of news has dramatically increased. Although everyone can now quickly fact check any particular story using electronic tools, most people no longer see the point in fact checking every individual story when there are so many different sources of information available to them. This sense of frustration with the growing volume of digital material may well allow countless other journalists’ work to go unchecked, enabling many more Stephen Glasses to find and victimize a vulnerable audience in the digital age.