The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harper’s issues its first retraction ever: A piece by disgraced ‘fabulist’ Stephen Glass

A 2003 photo of Stephen Glass, former journalist who fabricated more than 40 articles. (Photo by David Bartolomi/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

For much of his career, Stephen Glass, the disgraced American journalist, peddled deception. That has been known since 1998, when it was revealed that he had fabricated about two-thirds of the articles he wrote for the New Republic, for which he was a celebrated staff writer.

But shortly before his fall, Glass actually wrote about venturing into a job that relied on his ability to deceive, in a Harper’s Magazine story loaded with colorful personalities. The piece details Glass’s stint as a telephone psychic for a fortune-telling hotline.

“I predict the future, chat with the dead, and cure disease,” Glass wrote in the February 1998 piece “Prophets and Losses.” “I can cast spells (good and bad) on boyfriends and bosses, friends and celebrities. … Callers take careful notes on everything I say. They follow my instructions.”

Ominously, Glass declared: “Like God, my powers seem endless.”

This was certainly the case for the sought-after young reporter, who at age 25 had many a magazine editor pursuing his talents. Then it all came crashing down, through the unveiling of what Vanity Fair called “a breathtaking web of deception that emerged as the most sustained fraud in modern journalism.”

As details of his elaborate artifices emerged, publications big and small scrambled to determine whether Glass’s trail of falsehoods had passed through their pages. Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes, and the printing of Stephen Glass corrections and retractions became almost a cottage industry.

It is one that continues even to this day, apparently.

For the first time in its 165-year history, Harper’s Magazine has retracted an article — “Prophets and Losses” — after receiving a letter from Glass admitting to its fabrications almost two decades later. The retraction notes that at least 5,647 of the 7,902 words in the article were based on untruths.

The announcement was prompted by a letter sent to Harper’s by Glass himself, who requests the retraction and details the portions of the piece that were fabricated.

“I fabricated the text from ‘The man’ to ‘the psychic’ in paragraph 5; ‘Sharona’ and the attributed quote in paragraph 6. I exaggerated and fabricated the facts in paragraphs 7, 8, 9, and 10,” Glass wrote in a letter to the editor for Harper’s January 2016 issue. “I fabricated the events labeled ‘August 4’; ‘August 13’; the first, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh paragraphs of ‘August 15’…”

You get the idea.

“In addition to the content of the article, I fabricated notes in support of this story,” Glass acknowledged. “I lied to the staff of Harper’s. I fabricated in interviews about this story. … This story should not be relied upon in any way.”

The obvious question that arises from this divulgence is: Why now?

While he was enduring all those years of shame, a saga documented in the movie “Shattered Glass” (after the Vanity Fair article of the same name), why didn’t Glass just fess up all at once? And what could he gain from dredging it up now?

Finally, why has it taken Harper’s 18 years to retract an article penned by a serial fabulist? (Incidentally, “The Fabulist” is also the title of the novel that Glass wrote after he left journalism in a cloud of ignominy.)

According to a 1998 Washington Post article on the subject of Glass-related fallout, Harper’s terminated its contract with Glass but could neither confirm nor refute the details relayed in “Prophets and Losses” because most of the people he “interviewed’ were identified solely by their first names.

“We really can’t verify the existence of the people he cites in the article,” spokeswoman Jennifer Bluestein told The Washington Post at the time, adding that the most dubious character in the piece was “a psychic named Tinsel, who claimed that most customers are lower-income minorities.” Glass wasn’t returning any calls from Harper’s, either.

“We can’t retract the story without being able to confirm that it was false,” Harper’s president and publisher, John R. MacArthur, told the New York Times.

Glass’s latest letter to the editor, then, is the confession that Harper’s has been waiting for. And the move is probably more self-serving than remorseful on Glass’s part.

After all, he begins the letter with the phrase “I have been asked to identify what was fabricated in my article.” This suggests that he wasn’t doing it by choice, or out of some moral impulse, but rather to achieve another end.

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times has a probable theory for Glass’s motive.

“He didn’t respond to my call to his office at a Beverly Hills law firm, where he serves as a non-lawyer staff member, but it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s related to his quest for a California law license,” Hiltzik wrote. “He was turned down last year because of his past misdeeds but is eligible to reapply in 2017.”

“By then, he’ll have to show that he’s completely clean,” Hiltzik pointed out.

[Stephen Glass denied admission to California bar]

That would also explain why Glass voluntarily returned the $10,000 he was paid to write “Prophets and Losses,” according to Harper’s response to his letter. He’s trying to wash his hands, once and for all, of his notorious misdeeds.

Will it work? When the California Supreme Court denied Glass’s bar application in 2014, it wrote in a scathing ruling: “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.”

(The people who called the psychic hotline in “Prophets and Losses” were predominantly African American, with poor grammar and diction.)

In the court of public opinion, responses to Glass’s disgrace has been mixed over the years.

Hanna Rosin, a close friend and former colleague of Glass, wrote a reflective analysis last year attempting to reconcile the writer she thought she knew with the person he had been determined to be. Rosin was enraged when she first learned of Glass’s transgressions, but her opinion had since softened.

“Some people he has wronged will never forgive him,” she wrote. “This doesn’t mean that the truth about Steve is elusive, or subjective. It means that forgiveness is a choice, and I decided to make it.”

Meanwhile, writing for Slate, Emily Gould likened Glass to a James Frey (he largely fabricated his “memoir” “A Million Little Pieces”) of the past generation — a white male writer who has been proved to have betrayed readers’ trust yet nevertheless manages to channel that shame into a productive, new venture (a career in personal injury law for Glass; a lucrative young adult publishing house for Frey).

Yet Glass’s redemption has been incomplete because of his rejection from the bar. The Harper’s retraction may be the first in a new slate of disclosures in another bid for a law license.

Ironically, Glass, before he was exposed, told NPR during an interview about “Prophets and Losses” that he quit being a telephone psychic “after feelings of guilt over the deception overwhelmed him.” In his recent letter to Harper’s, however, there is no apology or mention of guilt — only a methodical list of the lies he told some 17 years ago.

Correction: The original version of this story credited Retraction Watch with breaking this story. It was the Los Angeles Times.

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