Brian Goldman | Gluing back the shattered glass

The Gold Standard | Stephen Glass' career shows the need for second chances

· January 13, 2012, 12:44 am   ·  Updated January 18, 2012, 12:42 am

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Penn has had its fair share of widely renowned graduates, from Donald Trump to William Henry Harrison to Stephen Glass.

One is a billionaire real estate mogul-turned-faux presidential candidate. The other was the ninth President of the United States of America (albeit for the shortest ever stint — 32 days). The third, Stephen Glass, is a serial plagiarizer who was caught fabricating dozens of stories for magazines such as The New Republic and Rolling Stone.

Come again?

Odd, but yes — one of the most uniformly disgraced journalists of the 20th Century was Stephen Glass, former Executive Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, who graduated from the College in 1994.

To recap: Stephen Glass, in his work for a variety of national magazines during the mid-90s, fabricated a good portion of his work. Some of his articles were based on real events but incorporated falsified quotes while others were completely invented.

Basically, Glass was a wonderful fiction writer masquerading as a serious investigative journalist. His fictionalized tales were supported with fake websites and phony voicemails to prevent fact-checkers from uncovering the entangled web of lies. When his stories were finally exposed for what they were, Glass was shamefully excommunicated from the world of journalism and remained in a silent purgatory for the next decade, until now.

Glass appeared in the media over winter break for a very different reason. Since being ousted for his journalistic misdeeds in 1998, Glass has slowly and quietly devoted himself to becoming a lawyer, graduating magna cum laude from the Georgetown School of Law. He soon moved out to California, passed the state’s bar exam and landed as a law clerk for attorney Paul Zuckerman. So, a happy ending for a Penn grad that is known nationally for all the wrong reasons, right?

Not so fast. There’s one tiny issue that stands in Glass’ way — the fact that California won’t actually let him become a licensed attorney in the state.

In order to become a lawyer in California, one must be approved by the state bar of California for a legal license. This committee has proved to be an intractable obstacle in the path of Glass’ legal career: the State Bar has ruled that Glass, now 39, displays certain moral shortcomings and a lack of trustworthiness. In short, he cannot become a lawyer in California, as his past demons seemingly continue to haunt him.

Glass’ legal team has challenged this decision in the State Supreme Court of California. And here’s one hoping he wins.

The battle over Glass’ pending legal license has everything to do with vindictiveness and little to do with justice. What Glass did in the mid 1990s was — to many — reprehensible. But to punish a man now, almost a decade and a half later, for ethical transgressions in an entirely different field and career, is in itself petty and unethical.

Certain crimes merit punishment with no second chances. Lifelong imprisonment for murder comes to mind. But what Stephen Glass killed was journalism’s code of ethics: a set of principles, not a body or a mind.

Second chances for these types of transgressions should be the norm, not the exception. Unfortunately, the committee members in charge of distributing California’s legal licenses have a worldview completely contrary to that ethos.

Years after joining a club of infamous Penn graduates, Stephen Glass seems intent on finally leaving. It’s ironic that the State Bar of California might curtail a once-immoral man’s journey for redemption on the basis of an immoral ruling.

Brian Goldman is a College senior from Queens, N.Y. His email address is briangol@sas.upenn.edu. The Gold Standard appears every Monday.

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