January 29, 2014

In 1998, Stephen Glass was a hotshot, high-profile, twenty-something journalist writing features for The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and other respected publications. He was also, as it turned out, a serial fabricator. Many of the people and events he chronicled were exposed as imaginary, forcing Glass to resign in disgrace. He deservedly became a pariah in his chosen field, and his tale of relentless transgressions was turned into “Shattered Glass,” a movie I highly recommend.

Even as a reporter, Glass had his sights set on pursuing a legal education (he took night classes while writing for The New Republic). He graduated with a law degree from Georgetown University Law School in 2000 and passed the bar exams in New York and California. The bars of both states declared him morally unfit to practice law, however, citing his journalism dishonesty. A California court overturned the decision of that state’s bar association on the grounds that Glass had shown sufficient rehabilitation, but the California Supreme Court this week overturned the lower court ruling. Glass’ attempts at rehabilitation “seem to have been directed primarily at advancing his own well-being rather than returning something to the community,” the court ruled in its 33-page decision.

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who has written on legal and judicial ethics, framed the underlying issue to Julie Bosman of The New York Times: “The question is, are we prepared to say as lawyers that a man who is no longer considered moral enough to be a journalist is moral enough to be a lawyer? If people flame out in journalism because of dishonesty, is the law open to them? I think the answer is no.” I was bemused by the haughty comment, given a Gallup poll last December that measured how Americans perceive the honesty and ethical standards of various professions; reporters and lawyers were ranked almost identically at the bottom of the list.

The sad truth is that Glass’ editorial deceptions were anything but unique. There is an abundance of other reporters who similarly crossed the line between journalism and creative writing. Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Jay Foreman, Patricia Smith…Glass is certainly not the only clown in that shame parade. Journalism also is rife with high-profile individuals who have caused, or have been implicated, in matters causing far greater harm to the “community” than Glass’ misdeeds.

Indeed, Martin Peretz, who owned and managed The New Republic when Glass worked there, testified at a bar hearing that Glass’ fabrications caused “minimal” damage to the magazine. He also testified that he wouldn’t rule out hiring Glass again as a journalist. And – get this – the former Harvard professor said that in his experience, the “most brilliant students plagiarize.” Peretz would go so far as to tell the bar committee’s counsel, “I actually find your pursuing (Glass) an act of stalking.”

As I’ve written before, plagiarism and fabrication are quite common in journalism. But the penalties for getting caught vary dramatically, depending on a journalist’s place on the industry food chain. Fareed Zakaria, a CNN host and Time columnist, was suspended for only a month after being caught lifting entire passages from a New Yorker article.  Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, didn’t suffer any consequences when it was revealed that she lifted 40 words verbatim previously published by a blogger.  Admittedly, Glass’ dishonesty was far more pervasive, but lesser-known journalists than Zakaria and Dowd weren’t treated as charitably when caught committing comparably small acts of plagiarism.

With its eroded standards for integrity and honesty, journalism today has emerged as quite the welcoming landing ground for people previously involved in egregious acts of wrongdoing, which is rather ironic given that its Glass’ unethical behavior as a journalist that has him barred from another profession today.

One of the most influential online business news publishers today is former Merrill Lynch technology analyst Henry Blodget, who was permanently banned from the securities industry in 2003 for issuing positive ratings on technology stocks he was privately deriding in email messages.  Countless investors lost millions of dollars trusting Blodget’s recommendations, but that didn’t stop New York magazine from publishing a cover story featuring his positive take on Facebook in advance of that company’s initial public offering. Even New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who has been at the forefront of journalists calling for the prosecution of executives responsible for the 2008 crisis, declared that Blodget should be given a break.

Then there is former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose moral transgressions are so well known they don’t even require a link.  Spitzer’s “rehabilitation” was becoming a co-host on a CNN interview show; his counsel and insights are still regularly sought by mainstream journalists. Worth noting:  Spitzer remains a member in good standing of the New York bar; apparently the association has no moral qualms about its members cavorting with prostitutes.

Steven Rattner, a former investment banker accused by the SEC of participating in a “widespread kickback scheme to obtain investments from New York’s largest pension fund, is a regular contributor to the New York Times, which perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise given that he is reportedly close friends with the newspaper’s chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.  Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin is one of Rattner’s biggest apologists.

But let’s go back to Glass. According to the California Supreme Court decision, Glass has undergone years of intensive psychoanalysis, garnered recommendations from some highly respected jurists such as Georgetown law professor Susan Low Bloch and Stephen B. Cohen, various judges, and his boss Paul S. Zuckerman, who became a personal injury lawyer after becoming disenchanted representing insurance companies. Glass also does extensive work with the homeless, and two psychiatrists have vouched for his character and his improved ability to manage stress.

There is compelling evidence suggesting that Glass is not the person he was some 15 years ago and that he has taken meaningful steps to lead an honest and ethical life.  Yet the New York State and California bars still deem him not worthy to practice law, a decision that seems driven by optics and PR. That a respected authority on “legal ethics” has no qualms about denying someone a well-earned legal career to feed a false sense of self-righteousness may explain why lawyers, along with journalists, are both held in such low regard.

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