Plagiarist Must Earn Second Chance

It is said that to err is human, to forgive divine.  But there are times when to forgive is to err---and this column is about just such an occasion.

Remember Stephen Glass (search)?  Stephen Glass was Jayson Blair (search) before Jayson Blair was Jayson Blair.  A young white man, Glass wrote for magazines like the New Republic (search) and Rolling Stone (search), among others, and made up so many facts and quotes and people and descriptions that he brought his employers to disrepute and himself to unemployment. He became the subject of stories himself, a star of shameful headlines---and a Fox News Watch segment or two---in the spring of 1998.

A few months ago, he published a book about his transgressions.  The book is a novel.  In other words, in one of those increasingly frequent instances of life being stranger than Saturday Night Live (search), Glass wrote a work of fiction about his fictionalizing of fact.

Then, a few days ago, in one of those increasingly frequent instances of life being so preposterous that Saturday Night Live’s writers could not even have imagined it, much less made it into a skit, Glass got a job. A reporting job. An assignment to tell the truth about something. From a magazine. Rolling Stone. One of the very magazines in whose pages he told his untruths late last century.

In fact, so outrageous were Glass’s misrepresentations for Rolling Stone that the magazine was sued for them. It won the suit by arguing that it was not responsible for the falsehoods because Glass was a freelancer rather than a member of the staff. But after losing face because of young Stephen’s shoddy work, Rolling Stone lost a lot of money defending itself in court.

Nonetheless, it has just hired Glass to write a story about changes in Canada’s marijuana laws (search). Says a Rolling Stone spokesperson, as quoted by (search), Glass is “a good reporter. We thought he would be the perfect person to do the story.”

Perhaps because his judgment won’t be any worse if he gets high?

Forgiveness is among the noblest of human traits. But it must, like the others, be properly applied. The problem with Rolling Stone’s application of it in the present instance is that it forgives Stephen Glass at a time when, in part because of Glass, in larger part because of Blair, and in still larger part for a multitude of other reasons, the entire field of journalism is under a cloud of suspicion.

According to the latest poll from The Pew Research Center for The People and The Press (search), and The Project for Excellence in Journalism (search), 56 percent of Americans believe the media “often report inaccurately,” while only 36 percent think we “usually get facts straight.” The former figure is up from 46 percent in November of 2001; the latter is down from 45 percent in the same period.

Thus to give Stephen Glass the benefit of the doubt is to raise even more doubts in readers and viewers about the commitment of journalism to veracity. To give Stephen Glass another chance is to allow one wayward reporter to breathe a sigh of relief and thousands of dubious consumers to furrow their brows in mistrust.

Perhaps Glass deserves forgiveness. But it should come in small steps over a long period of time. Glass should write hundreds of articles for several years for tiny publications, building up a track record of honesty and reliability, before a magazine with the prestige of Rolling Stone gives him another assignment. He should spend more time doing penance, in other words, than he spent sinning in the first place.

Oh, that book Glass wrote, the novel about his previous misdeeds? It’s not selling very well. And I, for one, am not buying his report on Canadian marijuana laws, either.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.

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