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Post Stephen Glass, Precursor to Relotius (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 05/08/19 2:56 AM

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Stephen Glass, Precursor to Relotius (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 05/08/19 2:56 am)

Gary Moore writes:

The Relotius/Der Spiegel fake journalism scandal in Germany is again illuminated by Bert Westbrook's thoughtful reply (May 6). I said on May 3 that the hoax and mass illusion issues in the now-debunked investigative reports by super-reporter Claas Relotius may never be fully explored, because they lead into so many different complexities--a Black Forest (Relotius liked such imagery) of "Darn, Who-Woulda-Thought" moments, where expectations about "logical" behavior fall apart.

Hence John Eipper's speculation that the blatant, seemingly unconcealable size of Relotius's whoppers sounds like a Freudianly displaced "cry for help." Was it? I agree with Bert about the pitfalls here, but also with John backhandedly, for something important is indeed whispering in the eerie blatancy. And its name is Stephen Glass.

Parallel cases in matters of deception (JE mentioned the 1983 Hitler Diaries hoax that slammed Germany's Stern magazine) help point up pathological behavior patterns where our ordinary assumptions about self-interest or "practical behavior" are left sputtering like P. T. Barnum's sucker. Relotius has also been classed with Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke--though those two bygone journalistic hoaxers (New York Times 2002-03; Washington Post 1980-81) aren't the closest parallels. In the way that one spoiler single-handedly almost destroyed the credibility of an entire magazine--but also in more intriguing and mysterious ways--the corollary for Der Spiegel and Claas Relotius in 2018-2019 was at the New Republic in 1996-1998, when it was irreparably damaged, and credulous careers were ruined, by a popular, eager-to-please young reporter (and then suddenly editor, like skyrocketing Relotius), whose very name reminds that life runs deep. Through this glass darkly (or Spiegel?) swims the crazy-quilt of metaphorical glimpses that once also intrigued a bigger fish--Freud--and along the way defies post-Freudian glosses like the smug term "sociopath."

Was Stephen Glass (b. 1972 in a sedate part of Chicago) an empathically deformed sociopath, when his 1990s Dotcom Bubble days suckered a parade of self-important and exquisitely educated editors into proving their own blindness? The "cry-for-help" possibilities in Glass were underscored but then immediately demolished--much like the temptation to pigeonhole a "sociopath"--by the specifics in his behavior, as documented considerately by his scam writings. Leave aside for the moment his subsequent career--and, astonishingly, the more recent parade of (rich and influential) people who now say he's just a nice guy who went bad for a little while. Let's focus instead on that pesky human x-factor, known to the Greeks as metaphor.

Glass's hoaxes in the New Republic were, repeatedly, so ornate, so convoluted, that they seem now to have been almost openly sneering at the stupidity of the trusting audience. His fake stories were studded not only with lies--but also with coy little asides and references about lying itself--as if to shout: "Hey. look what I can do! I can walk right out onto the farthest tightrope of your laughable credibility--and I can still get away with it!"

Metaphor is by nature non-linear. Its impact radiates, many directions at once. That's why it's metaphor, and not just 2+2 = 4. Put this kind of cannon in the hands of a profoundly unfettered narcissist (who can happily ignore the risk to other people) and the mere basics of human communication are revealed as an abyss. Both Glass and Relotius grew so involved in self-congratulatory novelist's imaginings that they repeatedly showcased the process in stray passages of print, as if glorying to see how firmly the all-believing fishes were hooked. Both also, by the way, when finally forced, whimpered (what else could they do?) that they had been pushed to their mendacity by their own anxious, self-despising hunger for prestige.

One of the few examiners who spotted the tells in Stephen Glass was journalist Mike Miner at the Chicago Reader: “Glass—at least in retrospect—had shown himself to be so enamored of deception that he plotted a con in the fiction he was passing off as journalism"--meaning even within the verbiage of a fake article, Glass would chortle to the reader overtly about how he had fooled a third party (also invented). For example, he wrote that he had cleverly introduced himself on the phone as a supposed representative of a laughably fake-sounding organization (the "AASWP"), adding that he had asked his (invented) sucker about "Werty, Iowa--a fictitious town." It took courage for Miner to try redeeming this mess in its own coin--by writing about the twists in the writing--because such metaphorical cluster-bombs jeeringly require tedious discussion, a communicational risk avoided by most of the self-righteous but hurried media voices denouncing the flawed Glass, and evidently never getting the joke.

The prestige factor--and the way it can bend through the right kind of lens into gloatingly veiled put-downs of Everybody-But-Godly-Me--weaves a wider web in the specialized annals of hoax, to pick back up on Janet Cooke (who devastated her trusting editors when she had to give back an effectively rigged Pulitzer Prize in 1981), and Jayson Blair (whose New York Times supervisors just could not believe he would do this to them). Unlike Relotius and Glass, Blair and Cooke represent another stream in the frailty of manipulable cultural assumptions, for both are African American, facing added cultural pressures toward re-rigging an anciently rigged deck.

This fantastically hazardous direction--far more dangerous to the examiner than the mere boredom of discussing metaphor-- also circles back to Chicago, when the Great Migration of World War I produced not only one of the first African American millionaires but a mass deceiver on a scale rarely examined by historiography in search of icons. Robert Abbott, founder of his era's largest newspaper for African Americans, notoriously and flagrantly invented much of his "news" about distant lynchings in never-falsifiable backwaters of the Deep South--in what amounted to a scandal sheet festooned with predatory ads for skin whiteners, hair-straighteners and get-rich-quick cons. Abbott, too, seemed at times to fairly gloat at the way his hard-pressed readers could be deceived; even his bylined correspondents for supposed news stories--such as archly-named "Eugene Brown"--were apparently invented like the imagined events and fake characters they were reporting on. But was Abbott "crying for help" in this charade? Or conversely, was he really so pleased with his powers that he had to twist the knife? Such diagnoses are a bit like calling a locomotive an iron horse. Well, okay, if the imagery helps to designate the uncomprehended. But where's the steam boiler?

Alas, Claas-Glass! The radiating spokes of metaphor force an examiner's choice. This one riddle --the cry-for-help-or-shouting-boast--leaves completely outside the viewfinder certain other revelations made by the glibly experimenting sorcerer's apprentice.

There was, additionally, Claas Relotius's "liberal fantasy world" of anti-Americanism. Too large a world for now.

JE comments:  Nice job, Gary; the Glass-Spiegel (window-mirror) metaphor goes perfectly here.  (I am reminded too of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which doesn't fit at all.)  Wikipedia tells us that Stephen Glass later attended law school, but has not been admitted to the Bar in either New York or California on morality grounds.  Ahem, aren't lawyers supposed to be good at lying, or at least at constructing plausible narratives?

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