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Intersections: Billy Ray, Probing Media Ethics on Film

The Los Angeles Times has called Shattered Glass, the story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, one of the top 10 films of 2003. Writer and director Billy Ray says his movie was inspired by another cinematic exploration of journalism ethics: All the President's Men. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports for Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations.

Directed by Alan Pakula, All the President's Men chronicles how Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovered the details behind the Watergate break in, an investigation that eventually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. A celebration of journalism at its apogee, the movie was a huge hit in 1976.

"I grew up in one of those homes where Woodward and Bernstein were heroes," Ray says. "We were taught to revere what they had done. The idea of the journalist as defender of the right, seeker of the truth -- that was real in our house."

Shattered Glass explores the other side of the media ethics coin. In the late 1990s, Glass was a rising star at The New Republic magazine and a freelancer for Rolling Stone, Harper's and George. His stories enthralled editors; unfortunately, most were complete fabrications. A writer at another media outlet, Forbes.com, eventually uncovered the fictions.

"Shattered Glass is my open love letter to Woodward and Bernstein, by way of examining what's happening to the mantle that they handed down to this new generation of journalists who wants the fame… but doesn't want to do the work," Ray says.

During production, Ray and his crew often looked to All the President's Men for inspiration. It's one of Ray's favorite films of the '70s, a decade when he says directors emphasized great storytelling above all. He admires the way the film details the dirty work of investigative reporting and its powerful yet restrained narrative style. Ray sees a parallel between the current states of journalism and moviemaking. In both fields, he says, there are pressures to do much more than stick to the story.

For his next project, Ray will tackle the story of Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent now in prison for selling government secrets to the Soviet Union. Shattered Glass will be released on DVD this week.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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