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'Are you mad at me?" It was a strange thing to be asking your editor when he was calling you to verify something in one of your stories -- specifically, the one about the young conservatives' convention, the one you alleged was overrun with boozing, drugs and sexual harassment cases.

The evidence in question was the mini-bar -- from which you'd described young conservatives quaffing liquor. In fact, as an outraged Republican pointed out after the story was published, the hotel didn't have mini-bars.

Some writers might have come clean then and simply confessed: I goofed. I didn't really check. "Are you mad?", as many writing about it have since said, is the kind of thing you'd say if you were a little kid caught making up stories. Which, when the truth came out about Stephen Glass, one of The New Republic's most interesting reporters, was the story. His fall -- and the story of the people he dragged through it -- is unravelled in Shattered Glass, which opens next Friday.

In a Toronto café, Billy Ray, the film's director and writer, looks young for almost 40, and a bit like Tom Cruise -- or is it the Top Gun-style aviator jacket, and the earnest heroism that Ray calls to mind? "Writers have always been heroes to me," he says. "I think a lot of actors and directors want to tell stories like this."

Glass made a lot of people mad. At 25, he was a rising star of American journalism, with bylines in The New York Times, Harper's, and Rolling Stone. However, it was discovered that in at least 27 stories that he wrote for The New Republic in the late nineties, Glass made up notes, interviews, and actual people and events, along with newsletters and made-up Web sites to prove them.

His crime made him the literary equivalent of a murderer -- at the very least, a high-end jewel thief.

What frustrated people the most was the way he did it. The only way anyone could know for certain about most of his claims was if they had been there themselves. Glass was banking on the fact that they weren't. And his ingratiating way with editors and fact-checkers kept people off his back.

The story it brings to mind is All the President's Men, the 1976 tribute to the journalists on the trail of Richard Nixon. At the mention of the film, Ray says immediately: "That movie is the father of this one. I wouldn't flatter myself to think that we're on a stage of that size," Ray says. "I'm not as good as Alan Pakula was. But I did show it three days to the crew before we filmed. I wanted to show them the bar was that high."

In the film, Glass is played by a dorkier-looking-than-usual Hayden Christensen (of Anakin Skywalker fame); only when he takes his glasses off in one scene does he look like the star he is. He plays a reedy ingrate to a mainly sympathetic group of characters -- including Chloe Sevigny, in the role of another young editor. Peter Sarsgaard ( K-19: The Widowmaker), plays the bad cop as The New Republic's editor Chuck Lane.

Ray consulted many of the story's original characters and ran the script by Lane, effectively fact-checking himself. But when he saw the first cut, Ray didn't like his film. "It wasn't good enough. It didn't tell the story I wanted it to."

He shot extra scenes to restructure the film, which now has Glass reminiscing about his career to a class of journalism students. "The idea was to turn the entire movie into a Stephen Glass pitch."

The pitch -- as an institution itself -- is key to the film, and to Glass's charm. The journalist's moment before an editor, the suggestion that "Here, this might be a story," that in his hands they sounded too good to be true.

In "Hack Heaven," one of his fabrications in The New Republic, a teenage hacker becomes the envy of his peers when one of his victims, a major electronics company, actually puts him on the payroll, begging for mercy. Then there was the conservative convention story. If they sound like some of the biggest urban myths of the past decade, they are -- and Glass was the one who created them.

In Ray's telling of the story, Glass was pitching everything he did, inspiring one of the film's best lines: "Stop pitching, Steve."

In a scene when he is busted, Lane forces Glass to produce the hotel where he met the alleged hackers and representatives from the company they victimized. Driving from Washington, D.C., to Bethesda, Md., Glass clings to his story, faking his way through lie after lie until he breaks down.

Shattered Glass sends the classic message that the truth will set you free. On the other hand, it raises a question about this time, when the Internet allows any person to make up -- with Web sites and quick trolls for information -- the reality they need.

"I believe that this has probably always gone on, and always will," Ray says. "At the same time, I think it's worse now than ever. I think the rewards for reporters who became stars are probably greater."

Glass's story broke when a reporter for the on-line magazine Forbes Digital Tool investigated his hard-hit electronics company for a follow-up story and found it didn't exist; his undoing became the subject of a 1998 Vanity Fair feature upon which Ray based the film. When the story broke this year that Jayson Blair, a New York Times reporter, had been fabricating interviews, people turned to the subject again. The New York Times' credibility was in question, and so was the nature of modern journalism.

"I want to say to people: beware of stars, because we all live in a cult of personality," Ray says. "I also want to say to the media: Be more vigilant. People think of The New Republic or The New York Times as institutions. They are not those things. They are the people who are placed in charge, who can be good journalists or bad, capricious or exacting. They're in charge of an institution; they have to protect it."

In the wake of the story, a few young journalists have actually come to Glass's defence. Some say that magazines such as The New Republic -- destined to be read by some people for entertainment -- aren't newspapers. Their essence is to make more of characters than the facts represent. Others have suggested that Glass may have invented a new form of fiction: the wanted news.

Ray isn't having any of it. "I think I made this movie for Woodward and Bernstein," he says.

Even after the film, the question remains -- why did he do it? With such resources, and such people skills, why not just tell the truth?

If there is an answer, it is probably in The Fabulist, Glass's recent book. A roman à clef, like so many of his best stories, it is fiction. However, in describing the events that led to his downfall, the main character,also named Stephen, details what he sought: love, prestige, acceptance. And then, of course, there is the movie, which subverts the idea that truth is stranger than fiction.

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