Lessons on Truth-Telling from Journalism’s Biggest Fraud

January 30, 2015

In 1998, one of the country’s most respected political magazines was rocked by what would eventually be dubbed “the most sustained fraud in the history of journalism.” The New Republic, boasting at the time to be the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One,” confessed to its readers in June that writer Stephen Glass had fabricated all or portions of 27 articles.

At the time of his exposure, Glass’s reporting was feverishly popular. His work “covered” everything from the bizarre to the outrageous, featuring incredible encounters with corrupt public health officials, millionaire teenage hackers, and carnal Presidential aides. Almost none of it was true. Glass had faked his way to stardom, at The New Republic and other publications.

What makes Glass’s story still arresting after more than fifteen years is the herculean effort he made to cover his tracks. Glass faked original reporter’s notes, created dozens of phony email accounts, built websites and printed business cards for people who didn’t exist, and even recruited his brother to portray an imaginary software executive. As the walls closed in around Glass’s fictions, he reached for more and more lies (the story of his exposure is told in the excellent and accurate 2003 film Shattered Glass).

How did Glass get away with it for so long? Many of The New Republic’s staff have testified since the scandal that Glass was able to avoid hard questions about his work through his ingratiating, self-deprecating demeanor with co-workers. Additionally, Glass’s stories were always fun to read. They were funny and colorful and generated positive attention for the magazine.

This isn’t just a problem for secular media. The temptation to obscure, avoid or even suppress the truth is a universally human one, one that can affect average Christians just as much as journalists. Sometimes American evangelicals have been caught proliferating outright falsehoods, like widely circulating emails about everything from the President to Harry Potter to imaginary “bans on Christmas.” Even some evangelical historians have used revisionism to generate a more pro-evangelical narrative on American history.

A few months ago an organization that produces web browsing accountability software tweeted the following: “68% of Young Guys watch porn every week; parents, this is your daughter’s dating pool.” Alarmed, I clicked the supplied link. After some careful reading, I was disappointed to discover that the 68% figure came from a Danish survey of fewer than 700 adults. The comment about “your daughter’s dating pool” was sure to generate more interest in the informational packet, even though it misled readers about the source and scope of data.

I wondered aloud why a Christian organization that is on the frontlines on the fight against porn would even feel the need to put out misleading innuendo. The reality of the scourge of pornography on churches is alarming enough without embellishment. Why even exaggerate? That’s when I thought of Stephen Glass. When Glass’s final article was published—the one that would get him caught—he was a budding superstar with freelancing contracts totaling somewhere near $50,000. Why was that 27th piece ever written? Why didn’t Glass simply rest on his laurels and start reporting on real people?

I think the answer is that sin has no cost benefit analysis. It’s part of human nature to want to bend reality a little further, or make ourselves look just a little smarter or our work just a little more important than it might be. This temptation is compounded exponentially when we think the stakes are high. For evangelicals engaged in crucial cultural conversations, the urgent nature of the work will often seem to justify obfuscations of truth, whether through sweeping generalizations, fallacious logic, or alarmist rhetoric.

Christians should not fear the truth, even when it seems to implicate ourselves or fellow believers. Earlier this month The New York Times published a piece by reporter Mark Oppenheimer featuring World Magazine, an evangelical news publication that has gained a reputation for objectivity in reporting scandals in the evangelical world. World editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky was quoted as saying, “We don’t have to cover up, because we do have faith that God forgives and saves the sinner.” Olasky is correct: The basis for Christian pursuit of truth should be the conviction that God is in control and uses the truth to redeem people.

Christians should take no part in deception, even when the facts intrude on our public or self-image. We should be on the forefront of the truth-telling business. Belief in a sovereign God is the belief that all truth ultimately points to Him, even when we cannot immediately see how that can be so. In the end, what motivates a commitment to telling even uncomfortable truths is the belief that God is both a God of truth and a God of love. Even when the facts hurt, they are meant only for the good of those that love God and are called according to His purpose.

Stephen Glass thought his fictions were better than reality. Christians know that no fiction can be better than the Gospel. The Truth is too good to not be true.

Samuel James

Samuel James serves as Communications Specialist in the Office of the President. He received his B.A. from Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his wife, Emily, live in Louisville and have one son. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24