The New York Times’ Joe Nocera is a great business columnist, and his recent column on former journalist Stephen Glass proves it.
In Glass’s Road to Redemption, Nocera argues that Stephen Glass has done all he can to rehabilitate himself, and that the California state bar is being “petty and vindictive” for opposing Glass’ bid to join the bar association.
We like to tell ourselves that we believe in the power of redemption. People can make mistakes — even big mistakes — and, in time, recover from them. Stephen Glass is someone who made a big mistake. The infamy of his misdeeds will follow him forever. But if anyone can be said to have redeemed himself by his subsequent actions, it is Glass.
Well…no. Forgive the pun, but saying that Glass is the epitome of redemption is truly lowering the bar.
Here’s the story of redemption as Nocera describes it:
Glass was unhireable as a lawyer when he got his degree. A sympathetic professor, Susan Low Bloch, helped him land a clerkship with a District of Columbia judge. Then he moved to New York where he passed the bar but withdrew his application when he learned he was going to be turned down. To support himself, he wrote a fictional account of his misdeeds. He underwent intensive psychotherapy and sought out those whom he had wronged to apologize. He fell in love, moved with her to California and took — and passed — the California Bar exam.
Mr. Nocera gets this technically correct, but substantively wrong–particularly the part about the fictional account and the apologies. I was the recipient of one of those apologies, so I should know. And since later in his column—we’ll get to that—Nocera takes aim at me and a few other of Glass’ “enemies”, I feel compelled to set the record straight here.
Because I had been his editor at George magazine, where Glass fabricated parts or most of four articles, Stephen Glass sent me a note of apology in the spring of 2003, asking if I would have a cup of coffee with him so he could explain in person. (I was one of a handful of editors most affected by Glass’ lying; I don’t think every note recipient got the same invitation.) Much has since been made of those notes by Glass and his defenders, but I can tell you, there wasn’t a lot to it—a small note card containing maybe a paragraph. It was pretty thin gruel.
Mostly, I’m an open-minded person, and was more than willing to hear what Glass had to say. (And, I’ll admit, I was curious.) So we did have that coffee, and Glass tried to explain—but the truth is, he really didn’t give much of an explanation at all. (Certainly not the “I was traumatized by my parents” defense he’s since developed.)
What was really upsetting was the timing of all this. First, it was almost five years after Glass’ lies were exposed, and he hadn’t reached out to me—or any other of his editors, to the best of my knowledge—in the meantime. Five years is a long time.
And second, it happened to be a week or so before the publication of Glass’ novel about his lying, called The Fabulist.
It’s pretty hard to take an apology seriously when it’s part of a pre-publication publicity blitz. More: It’s pretty hard to take an apology seriously when the perpetrator of a fraud makes sure to sell—and write—his book about it first.
(And don’t even get me started on the book, which I’ve already written about. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly self-critical. Why Glass didn’t write a memoir in which he could deal with what happened more…I don’t know, honestly? rigorously?—I’ll never know. The most likely reason is that Glass was considering becoming a novelist/screenwriter and wanted to use that book to test the waters.)
Nocera goes on to characterize me and a few other folks who’ve commented or written about Glass’ attempt to become a lawyer, saying,
His only enemies are those who remain mired in the past, still angered by what he did. None of them have had any serious contact with him in the subsequent 14 years.
As just demonstrated, this is factually wrong—unless Nocera is contradicting himself and calling Glass’ apologies unserious.
I’d add that I and the other people involved wouldn’t consider ourselves Glass’ “enemies” who are “mired in the past.” (We just remember it.) Skeptics, probably. But enemies makes it sound like we are irrational, and there are plenty of rational reasons to think that Stephen Glass should not be allowed to become a member of the bar.
Yet Nocera writes:
I e-mailed John P. McNicholas III, the [bar] committee chairman, to ask him why his group was being so petty and vindictive. He hasn’t written me back.
Imagine…not returning an email from a journalist asking why you’re being “so petty and vindictive.” What on earth would make you think that the journalist didn’t plan on giving you a fair shake?
There’s another issue that Nocera doesn’t address and Glass has certainly never acknowledged: It’s that the editors and readers of Glass’ stories aren’t the only people he should have apologized to. (I don’t think he’s ever actually apologized to the readers, though, come to think of it.)
As I’ve argued before, Glass created lies that people believed because they played on stereotypes: of college Republicans (drunk and obnoxious), of Wall Street financiers (so greedy they genuflected to a statue of Alan Greenspan), of hicks (they belonged to a church of George H. W. Bush), of black/poor people (so dumb, easy fodder for a fake phone psychic, or hyper-sexual and obsessed with white women, as Glass portrayed Vernon Jordan in George, or lazy, too shiftless to drive Washington taxis).
I could go on, but you get the point. In all the fuss about people like me—made, frankly, by people like me—who were conned by Glass, there’s been virtually no mention of people who were caricatured by Glass in stereotyped and bigoted ways—the subject-victims of his writing.
Nocera says that everyone who knows Glass since the scandal thinks that he’s incredibly honest. Well, we who knew him beforehand thought the same thing, and Glass’ behavior sounds to me as pathological as it was before—and the story that he tells of abusive parents sounds almost exactly like the kind of story he used to make up with facility.
The California Bar should be so lucky as to have him as a member, Nocera writes. Nonsense. The legal marketplace probably has more lawyers than it needs, and why would it need one about whom such question marks hover?
I’m not Stephen Glass’ enemy. I don’t wish him ill. I hope he has a happy and productive life. But he really hasn’t done much in the way of redemption, and much of what he has done isn’t very persuasive. It’s unpleasant and sort of tedious to have to keep pointing that out, but it’s the truth.