An Iranian teaches an American a lesson about journalism.
The film skips the Iranian part
By Kambiz Foroohar
December 2, 2003
In the movie Shattered
Glass, Hollywood presents its most sympathetic portrayal
of an Iranian -- a compassionate defender of freedom of speech, who helps
expose serial fabricator Stephen Glass. You have to look real hard to spot Axis
of Evil here.
I sit nervously in a Chelsea cinema. I manage to
ignore Hayden Christensen (sans his light sabre) and indie sex
symbol Chloë Sevigny who are somewhere to
my right, at the New York premiere of Shattered
Glass. I am conscious of my
mouth drying up as the movie, which is about a disgraced journalist
Glass, who made up 27 stories at The New Republic (TNR), moves inexorably
You see, way before Jason Blair and the New
York Times, there was Glass and TNR. Five years ago all the hoopola
and journalistic handwringing was about Glass
and his web of lies. I was one of two people who exposed Glass.
But it's not my story anymore. I have butterflies
in my stomach, because I am now part of the movie. Well, actually,
I'm a character in the movie
played by an actor. Shattered Glass, which has received good reviews from most
of America's mainstream press, has been compared with All the President's
Men, the Watergate film.
In the darkened cinema a thought occurs to me. Am
I the first Iranian portrayed by Hollywood post Sept. 11? I think
real hard but can't remember any memorable
Iranian characters in a Hollywood movie. I'm probably the only Iranian
journalist to be in Hollywood movie. Cool!
Before I get lost in my own thoughts, I am on. Or,
rather I should say, my double is. Cas Anvar, a Indian-Canadian
actor, is pretending to be ME. It's truly
eerie seeing someone acting like me, saying what I said five years ago almost
word for word. How did I get here?
My involvement in the movie began sometime in late
spring of 2002. Around that time, I got a phone call as I was about
to drive my wife Rana to the hospital
for a checkup. "We are making a movie out of your story and we need you
to sign some forms in order for us to go ahead," said a booming voice full
of Californian confidence and optimism. "Can you do that right away?''
"Uh, OK," I meekly stammer. Whatever. Probably
a crank call, I say to myself, but I'm not sure. I tell Rana: "Someone
wants to make a movie about my life." "That's great Hon,
but we're late to the hospital." Oh
well, so much for fame. Our first baby is due in less than five months.
Later an email arrives urging me to sign a contract.
It's only a few pages long but in between the fine print the producers
essentially demand that I waive my
rights to my life. The first draft of the screenplay arrives. To my horror,
although I play a key part, I'm not the hero of the movie. The
next shock: I am
described as an "Iranian-British," with attitude and "unruly hair." I've
also aged 30 years.
Whoa. Time out. I'm Iranian and educated in England
but that does not make me half British. Home is New York, not Mashad.
I do have an attitude but my hair
is NOT unruly. And I'm definitely thirty-something. I do the American thing
-- call 411 (information for non-US readers) and arm myself with
He'll be negotiating the fee for my "life rights," and to do
this, he needs to know exactly what happened five years ago. At the time, I was
working for Forbes, and I had just made a switch from being a writer at the magazine,
to an editor at the internet arm of the company. By 1998, I had been promoted
to become the managing editor at Forbes Digital Tool (the pun was funnier then).
Our main focus was to cover the nexus of technology and finance.
The Glass episode began one day in April after I
read a story in The New Republic, a prestigious left wing
publication run out of Washington. The story was about
a 16-year-old hacker who was offered $1 million dollars by a big time software
company called Jukt after posting porn all over its corporate website, and
how legislators at 22 states were to criminalize hacking. It was
written by a hot
young reporter named Stephen Glass.
The story was sensational, but for me it just did
not ring true. My first thought was that Glass, writing for politicians,
policy wonks and lobbyists, had exaggerated
a little bit to create a full-scale scare story. Still, I assigned my reporter
Adam Penenberg to look into it.
The more we researched, the less the story checked
out. We couldn't find a website for Jukt -- very odd for a tech
company not to be on the Internet. Nor could we find any phone
listings or tax records for Jukt in California or
Nevada or New Mexico. There was also no sign that the 16-year-old hacker ever
existed. And there was no anti-hacking legislation.
What followed was a game of cat and mouse. We grilled
Glass and the TNR editor Charles Lane. What I remember most vividly
is Lane calling me later to speak,
as he put it, "editor to editor, human being to human being." He no
longer believed in the story but wanted us to go easy on Glass.
On Sunday evening, Lane phoned to say Glass had
confessed to making the whole story up. Adam and I practically
ran to the office to write our story and secure
our hard earned scoop. Just before pressing the "Send" button, a "good
friend of Stephen Glass," called to warn me that Glass might commit suicide
if we published our story. Undaunted, we managed to publish before midnight and
secured our scoop.
The story made quite a big splash, and a lot of
people say it made web journalism respectable. But given that the
moral of Glass scandal was accuracy in the media,
it was amazing to watch the inaccuracies in how our story was covered pile
up. The writer that came closest to capturing the whole episode
was Pulitzer prize
winner Buzz Bissinger at Vanity Fair. His piece became the basis of the movie,
after a production owned by Tom Cruise agreed to put up funds to make it.
all of this in detail to my lawyer, who is busy trying to get me the best deal.
The negotiations drag on for a couple of months. Rana and I head to
Capri for our last holiday before the arrival of the baby, followed by faxes
from the film company and from my lawyer with new additions to the contract.
Billy Ray, the screenwriter and the director of the movie, repeatedly assured
me that I had nothing to fear. Still, it's a big step -- once I sign the
contract, the production company owns the rights to my story.
In between getting depressed over Italy's elimination
from the World Cup and wolfing down limon sorbets, I sign the contract
after my lawyer adds a number
of stipulations. Then, I forget about it all as Darya is born.
A year passes and an email arrives alerting me to
the New York screening. Which brings me to a dark screening room.
So how does my film self look? I have to
say that I'm fairly happy about it. But up to a point. My role is that of a
tough but fair editor -- but here's the problem -- on the big screen,
referred to only by my first name of "Kambiz," and no mention is made
that I'm Iranian. Maybe my family name "Foroohar," is a tongue twister
for Hollywood set.
The script had me pegged as Iranian-British, but
instead, my character looks like a garden variety "other," exotic
and difficult to place. My Iranian-ness is buried. I could be any
sort of Middle Easterner, Indian or Latin American.
I haven't checked, but I'm probably the first Iranian journalist
portrayed in a Hollywood movie. Probably also the first Iranian portrayed in
a Hollywood movie post Sept. 11. It's got to be the most sympathetic portrayal
of an Iranian by Hollywood. Ever. Except that my identity was half brushed under
the proverbial carpet.
Cas Anvar puts on a good performance. But where
are the Iranian actors in North America? [Anvar is Canadian
born to Iranian parents. See his reply: Simply
I'm not familiar with any Iranian actors in Hollywood and there
are very few in the UK.
OK, my Iranian-ness has nothing to do with breaking the
Glass story. But Iran has become an axis of evil and something positive would
not have gone amiss.
Part of me is there on the screen. My Iranian identity
- well don't look
Shattered Glass is a perfect family movie - there's no sex or violence,
little profanity and it's morally uplifting. The good guys win. It's
a movie that might even appeal to President Bush.
Kambiz Foroohar is an editor at Bloomberg news
service in London.
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