Director Billy Ray hadn't even finished shooting his movie about fabricating journalist Stephen Glass when he read that he was glamorizing a media villain.
"Normally films have to come out to get a bad review," Ray says.
New York Daily News critic Jack Mathews wrote that Ray "undoubtedly sees some harmless romanticism in a guy who could so easily fool seasoned magazine pros." But Ray, who cast Hayden Christensen (of recent "Star Wars" fame) as the disgraced New Republic writer, views it differently.
"It's a cautionary tale about the difference between being a good reporter and a hot one," he says, comparing "the Woodward and Bernstein types who ground out a story and got famous, as opposed to the generation of reporters today trying to get the same level of fame but not doing the same amount of work."
Now that shooting has wrapped on "Shattered Glass" (with a day in Washington last week after most of the filming in Montreal), it's worth pondering how Hollywood handles the issue of journalistic ethics in what purports to be a nonfiction work. After all, millions of people probably think of Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee after the Watergate film "All the President's Men," and of Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace after "The Insider" chronicled the battle between "60 Minutes" and the tobacco industry.
The plot first unfolded in the press in 1998. Charles Lane, then the New Republic's editor, fired Glass, then 25, after painstakingly discovering that he had invented a teenage computer hacker -- this after Glass had created a phony Web site for the fictitious company supposedly penetrated by the hacker. Fabrications were found in more than two dozen other New Republic pieces by Glass.
Lane (played by Peter Sarsgaard) is clearly the script's hero. "You think you're seeing a movie about Stephen Glass, and you realize halfway through you're seeing a movie about Chuck Lane," Ray says.
Ray and producer Craig Baumgarten insist the film is faithful to transcribed interviews with the people involved. "We're putting ourselves up to a very difficult standard for a movie," Baumgarten says. "We can't falsify or invent or homogenize the story in any way."
Executive Producer Alan Merims says: "It's always harder to do a story that's not made up of whole cloth. There were discussions about what is it appropriate to stylize and not." Some of the players "said, 'I don't like the way I am in this scene,' but you can't listen to that."
Lane, who is now a Washington Post reporter and helped vet the script, praises the filmmakers' commitment to accuracy. "There are incidents that occur in the movie that didn't occur in real life, just to kind of keep the plot going," he acknowledges. "They have warm and fuzzy scenes with me and my wife that didn't happen. They have me having conversations with various people that occurred in different places and the words were all different."
Another dilemma: Glass, who graduated from Georgetown Law School two years ago, refused to cooperate, so a scene in which he calls his parents is, shall we say, inferred. A female New Republic staffer played by Chloe Sevigny, though based loosely on Hanna Rosin (now also at The Post), is a composite; a male staffer is reincarnated as a woman, and there's a fictional intern. Ray sees these as acceptable cinematic compromises.
As for the impact on Glass, who has never publicly discussed his journalistic fiction, "I don't celebrate in any way the idea that this movie will cause this guy pain and embarrassment," Ray says. "I regret that. But it's a story we all felt should be told. I don't know how to make this movie without naming Stephen Glass. That would have felt very cheap. It would have been wildly ironic to make this movie with fake names."
Will the Lions Gate film, to be released next year, be boffo at the box office? In a tale about bogus notes and fooling fact-checkers, about the only action scene is when Lane takes Glass on a drive through Bethesda to try to find the software company that is a figment of the writer's imagination.
"Whenever you make a movie that doesn't have things blowing up in it, you worry about whether people will go see it," Ray says. "If we limited ourselves to readers of the New Republic, we'd be in a lot of trouble. But if we do it right, the movie will be good."
Salon's Screw-Up Salon has now apologized twice for a story about Army Secretary Thomas White.
First the online magazine said freelance writer Jason Leopold had lifted material from the Financial Times for an Aug. 29 story accusing White of covering up losses when he was an Enron executive. The correction added that Leopold had slightly misquoted an e-mail from White while at Enron, which should have read: "Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q."
Then came a second correction (which, to Salon's credit, was prominently displayed), saying the story had been taken down because "we have been unable to independently confirm the authenticity" of the e-mail.
Leopold says he is "shocked" that "Salon was very wimpy and caved in." He says a copy of the e-mail, provided to Salon, came from a former Enron colleague of White who also provided other documents. But when Salon later called the source, he says, the man denied the e-mail correspondence and denied talking to Leopold.
Salon Managing Editor Scott Rosenberg calls Leopold's accusations "bizarre," saying, "This is about journalism and ethics. There was more than one problem with the story that we tried to resolve with the writer."
Army spokesman Charles Krohn says White doesn't recall sending such an e-mail. While praising Salon for its "high-minded" correction, he says Leopold never followed up on an offer to provide the disputed e-mail.
Footnote: New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who had picked up the story, has now retracted his reference to the e-mail. But although Leopold provided the e-mail on condition that his source, the former Enron executive, not be named, the Times published the name Friday after Krugman passed a copy to a colleague with the name only partially scratched out. "I am sick to my stomach. . . . I have screwed up very seriously," Krugman told Leopold by e-mail. Says Leopold: "The Times broke its promise to me. . . . I felt like the Times news division sold me out."
Permanent Exclusive ABC's Web column "The Note" has been getting all kinds of good inside stuff, but went out on a limb Tuesday afternoon with this bulletin: "The New Jersey Democratic Party plans to announce that Rep. Frank Pallone is its choice to replace Sen. Bob Torricelli, who dropped out of the race Monday." Hours later, former senator Frank Lautenberg got the party's nod.
Mark Halperin, ABC's political director, says the Pallone story simply changed. "It was at the time solid, and the guy backed out," he says. "Sometimes people take a risk and go with lower-level sources. These were what I would call principals. It had been offered and accepted." An updated piece was posted soon afterward.
You Haven't Got Mail Time magazine is declaring its independence from AOL Time Warner -- sort of. After using America Online e-mail since the merger, the magazine is switching to Microsoft e-mail rather than sticking with the parent company. "We're delighted to bring you a system that will match your business needs," Time executives said in a memo.