In a definitive work of media criticism, the California Supreme Court unanimously today ruled that Stephen Glass, notorious for fabricating stories for the New Republic and other magazines as a young writer in the '90s, is unfit for admission to the state bar. The court's 33-page decision is a comprehensive and pitiless accounting of not only Glass's initial misdeeds, but of the dozen years of obfuscation and evasion that followed, as he tried to work his way from journalistic disgrace to lawyerly respectability.
Despite the easy lawyer jokes—and lower decisions in Glass's favor by the California State Bar Court and its Review Division—the ruling was a simple one. Glass, the supreme court concluded, is a proven fraud artist and racist, with a history of violating ethical norms:
Glass's journalistic dishonesty was not a single lapse of judgment, which we have sometimes excused, but involved significant deceit sustained unremittingly for a period of years....Glass's deceit also was motivated by professional ambition, betrayed a vicious, mean spirit and a complete lack of compassion for others, along with arrogance and prejudice against various ethnic groups. In all these respects, his misconduct bore directly on his character in matters that are critical to the practice of law.
As one of its first orders of business, the court nailed down "Taxis and the Meaning of Work," Glass's breakthrough cover story for the New Republic, which had somehow avoided making it into the New Republic's official list of his fabrications or Buzz Bissinger's Hollywood-ready accounting for Vanity Fair.
This was the piece in which Glass described the tensions between hardworking immigrant cab drivers and shiftless African Americans, culminating in a ride-along where the reporter claimed to have witnessed a foul-mouthed young black man robbing a cabbie at knifepoint. Not until his California bar application (after his New York application had been denied) did Glass finally admit that this bigoted fantasia was fake.
Glass's history always made the question of his rehabilitation a logically vexing one. What he did at the New Republic, after all, was to tell his editors what they wanted to hear. That was his talent as a con artist or his pathology as a psychological damage case: He did whatever it took to convince people to approve of him. How could anyone tell the difference between a genuinely reformed Stephen Glass and a Stephen Glass who was trying to be perceived as having been reformed?
The opinion noted:
Glass's behavior was under the scrutiny of first the New York bar from 2002 to 2004, and then the California Bar from 2007 to 2010, reducing the probative value of the evidence of his good conduct during those periods.
It was Glass's own image management—his "hypocrisy and evasiveness"—that helped undo him. The taxi story and his other loose ends only got tided up when the bar application process required they be tided up. Ultimately, the court saw no compelling reason to believe he had mended his defects. The words "dishonest," "dishonesty," or "dishonestly" show up 11 times in the opinion; "disingenuous" or "disingenuousness" appear three times.
Even Glass's character witnesses worked against him. The opinion notes that Martin Peretz, the owner and editor of the New Republic when Glass was there, "had developed a charitable view of his misconduct":
He had renewed social contact with Glass in the past few years and believed that Glass had been harshly treated. He would not rule out hiring Glass again as a journalist. He explained that in his experience as a professor "[t]he most brilliant students plagiarize," complaining to the Committee's counsel, "I actually find your pursuing him an act of stalking."
Likewise Melanie Thernstrom had testified that she
thought the Committee was "picking on" irrelevant issues — that is, the exact number of Glass's deceptive articles and whether or when he had disclosed them all. She believed the Committee's position was "sophistic." In her view, it was enough that he had admitted his misconduct and apologized for it, and she believed that there was no current, ongoing damage from his fabricated articles.
These were not the most helpful claims to put before a court that had just read the taxicab story, or Glass's fabrications about a corrupt and priapic Vernon Jordan:
Moreover, stressing that Glass's reputation as a journalist had been exploded and that so many years had passed, some of the character witnesses did not sufficiently focus on the seriousness of the misconduct, incorrectly viewing it as of little current significance despite its lingering impact on its victims and on public perceptions concerning issues of race and politics.
So on top of everything else, it is now settled as a matter of law in the state of California that Marty Peretz is not to be taken seriously. It is a landmark day for journalism.
[Image by Jim Cooke; gavel via Shutterstock.]