Harper’s first-ever retraction is of a 1998 article by infamous fabricator Stephen Glass

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In the world of journalism, Stephen Glass is legendary — and not in a good way. For the first time in the 165-year-old magazine’s history, Harper’s is officially retracting a 1998 article by Glass, who was discovered to have made up quotes, people, and even entire stories.

Glass — whose deception was captured in the film “Shattered Glass” — actually requested the retraction for “Prophets and Losses,” in a letter to the editor published in the January 2016 issue of the magazine. He specifies the sections he fabricated, which Harper’s calculated affects at least 5,647 of the 7,902 words” (more than 70 percent) of the article.

Now, as with the retractions for academic journals that we usually cover around here, Harper’s has affixed a note to the article:

This article has been retracted. It is available here as part of the Harper’s Magazine archive; for more information, see the letter from Stephen Glass and our response in the January 2016 issue.

Earlier this year, he repaid the magazine $10,000 — his fee for the piece, plus estimated interest.

In 1998, as Glass’s career was coming apart, the president of Harper’s told the New York Times why they did not retract the article then:

Harper’s rechecked the one article Mr. Glass did for the magazine — in which Mr. Glass wrote about working as a telephone psychic — and found that while certain facts could be confirmed, there was no way to verify statements from anonymous callers. ”We can’t retract the story without being able to confirm that it was false,” said John R. MacArthur, Harper’s president and publisher. Mr. MacArthur added that Mr. Glass had not returned the magazine’s calls and that the magazine had canceled his contract for two more articles.

Now, nearly two decades later, in his letter to the editor, Glass explained which portions of the text were made up:

In addition to the content of the article, I fabricated notes in support of this story. I lied to the staff of Harper’s. I fabricated in interviews about this story. I engaged in egregious misconduct. This story should not be relied upon in any way.

Along with detailing what specific elements of the article were fabricated, he includes a disclaimer:

I believe that this list is complete. However, there may be inadvertent omissions or errors, as I am relying exclusively on my seventeen-year-old memory.

In their response, printed below Glass’s letterHarper’s explains why they are accepting the retraction request:

[W]e welcome the opportunity to correct the record — even almost eighteen years after the fact. Glass’s letter makes clear that at least 5,647 of the 7,902 words of “Prophets and Losses” were based on fabrications. A deception of that scale requires more than a simple enumerating of errors and falsehoods; we must retract the entire article. We won’t remove it from our online archive, but we’ve stamped the digital version with the word retracted.

Harper’s — which highlighted scientific retractions in the November edition of their well-known Harper’s Index — notes that the retraction is the magazine’s a first and only retraction:

This is the first retraction in 165 years of Harper’s Magazine; that we’ve had to do this only once speaks to the excellent work of generations of fact-checkers. We remain committed to getting the story straight month after month, year after year — and to making sure no one like Stephen Glass is ever allowed to fool us again.

This isn’t the first formal retraction for Glass. In 2012, This American Life pulled three segments that involved him or his reporting. The note affixed to an episode that included an interview with him reads:

This episode originally included a story by reporter Stephen Glass (no relation to [host] Ira [Glass]) about working as a telephone psychic. We have removed the story because of questions about its truthfulness. It is included in the transcript for reference.

At the Los Angeles Times, reporter Michael Hiltzik speculates about why Glass requested the Harper’s retraction 17 years later:

Why is Glass confessing now? He didn’t respond to my call to his office at a Beverly Hills law firm, where he serves as a non-lawyer staff member, but it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s related to his quest for a California law license. He was turned down last year because of his past misdeeds but is eligible to reapply in 2017. By then, he’ll have to show that he’s come completely clean.

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