Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stephen Glass on This American Life [Delivery]

I've been listening to This American Life archives online, each episode, in order of when they aired. Today, I came across the episode "Delivery," tales about delivery people in five acts.

I was enjoying the episode while doing some data entry when the fifth act, "Faith Shattered" came on. Its about a guy who is simultaneously offended by two companies while trying to get a laptop computer delivered to him. Toward the end of the story, when the guy telling the story and Ira Glass are bantering, I realize....the guy telling the story? He's Stephen Glass. Of Shattered Glass fame. Of exaggerating stories for The New Republic fame.

Chuck Lane told 60 Minutes this about Stephen Glass:
“If it was sunny outside and Steve and I were both standing outside in the sun and Steve came to me and said, ‘It's a sunny day,’ I would immediately go check with two other people to make sure it was a sunny day,” says Lane.
This, of course, casts the entire This American Life story into doubt. How much of it is true? How much is exaggerated? The story is presented much like this:

  1. Stephen Glass is a big believer in the free market. He claimed to have advocated the postal service privatized because of how great Fed Ex was prior to the incidents that follow.
  2. He purchased a Gateway computer and it was late being delivered. He called several times (I think he says 10 times), checking on the status of the shipment.
  3. On one such call, the customer service rep used a Jewish slur to refer to him as she was hanging up on him. He immediately faxed a complaint to their corporate office.
  4. A higher up in the company eventually apologizes, and offers to donate 10 computers to the Anti-Defamation League. Stephen Glass declines: he hates the Anti-Defamation League because he claims to love the first amendment and free speech rights so much.
  5. The computer was delivered to his parents home in Chicago. He's in DC at the time, and has it sent Federal Express.
  6. The package is lost or stolen.
  7. Stephen Glass claims that an employee of Fed Ex, named Edward Maxwell, tells him that it has been stolen and that he should have sent the computer UPS instead.
  8. Edward Maxwell is fired and later goes to work at UPS.
  9. Eventually, Stephen Glass gets a refund. They Fed Ex a check to him overnight. He claims that he asked them to UPS it instead.
I did some googling, but there's nothing around the internet about this. Many of Stephen Glass's previous subjects have countered the articles written about them, but googling Stephen Glass with the companies mentioned brings no results. Stephen Glass plus the Anti-Defamation League has no real results. There's no fact check on the This American Life website. Edward Maxwell plus UPS doesn't come up with anything. 

The episode is from before Stephen Glass was outed as an exaggerator, liar, and fantastical storyteller. It looks as though all three of his This American Life appearances were prior to his downfall. 

The question remains: how much of this story can be verified? Did Gateway Computers really offer to donate ten computers to the Anti-Defamation League? Did a man named Edward Maxwell get fired from Fed Ex because he told the truth (that packages with computers are often stolen at Fed Ex) and get a job at UPS? Does Stephen Glass really believe in the free market or free speech?

Or is this just the story of being lost in customer service hell, but because everyone has a customer service hell story Stephen Glass exaggerated it until it was a story worthy of This American Life?

[Just a small note: I love This American Life and don't mean them any harm. I especially love the type of journalism they've been doing, especially the investigation into a Drug Court in Georgia. I donated to them this year.]

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Damon said...

Thank you for bringing this up. I too love to trawl the archives of TAL, and was very surprised to hear a stephen glass segment, although his name is not mentioned in the contributors list for the episode. His demeanor is so...quick and sly as to seem very unbelievable. I had a hard time with the racial slur and other parts seem too extreme to be true.

Anonymous said...

Just listened to this story in the archives and went on a similar Internet quest as you. It's frustrating not to have substantial answers. You would think that the president of FedEx or Gateway would step forward to refute his claims. Maybe he got JUST ENOUGH right for no one to put up a fuss. In addition to the racial slur and the ADL, his impromptu sit-in beggar belief.

Roland L said...

The audio from this episode #57 Delivery has since been removed from the TAL archive. If anyone has it i would love to listen to it.