I said there was a Society of Men among us, bred up from their Youth in the Art of proving by words multiplied for the Purpose, that White is Black, and Black is White, according as they are paid. To this Society all the rest of the People are Slaves.
— Lemuel Gulliver explains lawyers, from Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” 1726
Everybody hates the other guy’s lawyer, so the news that serial fabricator Stephen Glass was denied a license to practice law by the California Supreme Court has unsettled certain of his former colleagues in Washington journalism.
Slate.com editor David Plotz characterized the court’s 35-page decision as “smug, self-righteous,” “snobbish,” “bizarre and backward.” A former colleague and friend at The New Republic, where Glass published many of his fabricated hit pieces disguised as journalism, Plotz writes that Glass lied to him almost every time they spoke.
In his dreadful novel “The Fabulist,” Plotz writes, Glass portrayed a character clearly based on his wife, Hanna Rosin, as “conniving, sleazy, and disloyal, and the Hanna-like character’s husband as even worse.” Somebody who did that to my wife would be well advised to avoid me.
Even so, Plotz now finds it incomprehensible that his onetime deceiver would be shunned by a bunch of damned lawyers. Lawyers! Who do they think they are? He credits the character witnesses and psychotherapists who testified that the man has reformed since his disgraceful exit from journalism.
And after all, he concludes, “Law isn’t holy orders. It’s a job.”
To reach this conclusion, Plotz actually argues that Glass’ well-earned reputation as “a liar and a fraud” all but guarantees he’ll be honest and circumspect as an attorney. “Glass is far less likely than most lawyers to try to sneak something past a judge, because he’ll know that every single word he speaks and document he signs is suspect.”
Rephrased: Glass is so crooked he’ll have to play it straight.
Me, I wouldn’t trust the guy to pick up my laundry. But hold that thought. For readers who have forgotten the details, the California Supreme Court’s ruling makes for fascinating reading. Glass’s ability to tell editors exactly what they evidently wanted to hear stands out. His first cover story for The New Republic editor Michael Kelly was “Taxis and the Meaning of Work.”
“Its theme,” the justices write, “was that Americans, and in particular, African-Americans, were no longer willing to work hard or to take on employment they consider menial.”
Complete with made-up, jive-talking slackers and an imaginary armed holdup, it was followed by “Spring Break,” a tale about Young Republicans at a CPAC convention whose idea of fun was humiliating homely women. The idea was to seduce “a real heifer, the fatter the better, bad acne.”
Guys would then emerge from hiding, laughing, pointing and snapping photos. “A wash of despair and alcohol and brutishness” hung over the entire GOP conference, Glass moralized.
A Harper’s Magazine piece called “Prophets and Losses” introduced readers to another imaginary African-American who “could not be persuaded to use his money to feed and clothe his seven children by five different mothers instead of buying VCRs and calling telephone psychics for advice on lottery numbers.”
In 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky craze swept Washington, Glass wrote an ugly profile of Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan, accusing him of sexual and financial improprieties for the now-defunct George magazine. All based upon accusatory quotes from imaginary anonymous sources. On investigation, an editor later testified, the article “blew apart like a dandelion in a strong wind.”
See, Glass wasn’t just going for the glory. He was hurting people he had reason to believe his editors wanted hurt. The justices also concluded he’d shaded the truth in his application.
Anyway, here’s my suggestion for David Plotz: If he’s so concerned about Stephen Glass’ professional future, Slate should hire the man straightaway as its legal correspondent. Or perhaps as its in-house legal adviser. Glass wouldn’t need a law license for that. Who better to guide the online magazine through the shoals of libel law than the most spectacular of The New Republic’s decadeslong lineup of journalistic fakers?
In an online exchange about Glass, my friend Oklahoma journalist Richard Fricker may have put it best: “He disgraced one profession that must fight for its integrity every day, against heavy odds. Why would a second want to give him their trust?
“Second chances, sure. Nine, forget it.”
Observing the behavior of the national political press during the Clinton years, I once wrote that by “claiming the moral authority of a code of professional ethics it idealizes in the abstract but repudiates in practice,” Washington journalism had grown decadent, self-protective and increasingly unworthy of respect by outsiders.
Are we now to abandon even the pretense of honor? Call me smug and self-righteous, but I believe the California justices ruled correctly.
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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”. You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.