"They [journalists] hate being lied to. They hate it because it is wrong. They hate it because it thwarts the purposes of a free press. And they hate it because it makes them look bad to publish something that later turns out not to be right." – New Republic Editor Charles Lane , in a column that went
to press just days before he fired
Associate Editor Stephen Glass
for making up elements of a story
A dam L. Penenberg was amazed. Forbes Digital Tool Executive Editor Kambiz Foroohar had handed him an incredible story about a teenage computer whiz offered a lucrative position with a company whose databases he had penetrated. It appeared that Penenberg – a reporter who covers technology's impact on business for the Forbes-owned Web site – had been scooped by a political magazine: The New Republic.
"It sounded amazing," says Penenberg. "And frankly..I assumed it was true and that I'd missed it."
Both Foroohar and Penenberg wanted to do a follow up. But something wasn't quite right about "Hack Heaven," which ran in The New Republic's May 18 issue. Penenberg had never heard of anything Associate Editor Glass mentioned. He started to dig, e-mailing his hacker contacts and asking if they had heard of hacker agents or a hacker conference the story included. Normally if you hack a company and get caught, says Penenberg, "you're in big trouble." None of his "really trustworthy and well-known hackers" had heard of the story's claims. Then he searched the Web for Jukt Micronics, the company Glass maintained had recruited the 15-year-old hacker. Again, nothing.
Penenberg kept digging. He contacted the Software Publishers Association of America, the California Franchise Tax Board and California's secretary of state's office. He checked for Jukt Micronics under all of California's 15 area codes. No listing, no tax information, no nothing.
Digital Tool then investigated each questionable entry – calling, for example, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, Nevada State Highway Patrol, both Las Vegas papers and radio stations to confirm that anti-hacker radio spots had aired in the state. They contacted the Justice Department, the FBI, the U.S. Customs Department and police departments in tough cybercrime-fighting states California and New Hampshire for information on the "Center for Interstate Online Investigations" and the "Computer Security Center." Digital Tool couldn't find evidence that they had ever existed.
After Glass failed to return his calls, Penenberg took his questions to New Republic Editor Lane, who did some investigating of his own. On May 8, Lane dismissed Glass after discovering fabrications in the hot 25-year-old writer's article. Actually, Lane told the Washington Post he "determined to a moral certainty that the entire article is made up."
Glass apparently even tried to substantiate his fictitious Jukt Micronics with a phone number that turned out to be his brother's cell phone and an Internet site he himself created, complete with criticisms of his TNR article. (Glass did not return phone calls to his Washington home or a message sent to his e-mail address from AJR .)
Hired in 1995 as a TNR intern, Glass had quickly ascended the masthead to assistant editor – in effect, a fact-checker – and then to associate editor. His credits included contracts with George (now terminated) and Rolling Stone (being reevaluated).
Lane says though "the staff was devastated," the ordeal has given TNR "a sense of mission that we have to recover from this." The magazine, he says, is moving forward. "We published another issue, which wasn't easy," he says. "We'll publish another one after that.... It has been a heavy, heavy blow."
He says TNR's fact-checking process is being examined, but maintains that editors are also responsible. "Fact-checking is not a defense against a systematic deception of this kind."
Glass' fabrications could affect more than his own work, marking yet another blow to journalism – and to the star-crossed TNR. His misstep follows allegations of plagiarism involving another young New Republic writer, Ruth Shalit , in 1995; the rocky departure of Editor Andrew Sullivan in 1996 and the abrupt dismissal of his successor, Michael Kelly , in 1997. So what does yet another controversy mean for TNR?
Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz says the extent of damage to TNR's credibility will depend partly on how many other Glass stories are proven false, "but it will depend as well on New Republic readers believing this was an aberration and not evidence of perpetual sloppiness."
But more clues are surfacing. While TNR is trying to separate fact from fiction, Kurtz, in a May 13 follow up story, listed a slew of items found to be unsubstantiated among Glass' articles – a convention and organizations that couldn't be found in news databases and a recent complaint from a budget-cutting coalition that Glass invented group "members" for a story.
Penenberg asks the obvious: "Why didn't someone catch this earlier?"
A story like this never would have seen cyberspace with Digital Tool, he says, pointing out that vague phrases like "a big-time California software firm" would've prompted questions like, "In what city is it based?" and "Is it public or private?"
The incident rebuts the "bad rap" he feels online journalists have endured. "I think that print has looked down on us, and I don't think it's fair," he says, adding that it took an online publication to catch the print publication's errors.