What does Jukt Micronics teach us about fact-checking?

Taken from Flickr user lhls photostream

Taken from Flickr user lhl's photostream

You may not have ever heard of Jukt Micronics but it’s a California software firm that, in 1998, was the victim of a 15-year-old hacker named Ian Restil. Concerned that Restil or others would do even more damage, executives at Jukt Micronics decided to hire the very 15-year-old hacker who broke into their network as an information security consultant.

Those executives even sat down with the boy at some hacker convention where they negotiated to pay Restil more money than the 15-year-old knew what to do with:

Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, is throwing a tantrum. “I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Men comic book #1. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy – and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!”. . . .
Across the table, executives from a California software firm called Jukt Micronics are listening and trying ever so delicately to oblige. “Excuse me, sir”, one of the suits says tentatively to the pimply teenager. “Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting you, sir. We can arrange more money for you. . . .”

We know all of this because of a lengthy article featured in the The New Republic over a decade ago called “Hack Heaven.” The author of that article was a young, rising star reporter named Stephen Glass.

It made a great story. There was only one problem. It was all made up. There never was a hacker convention or a negotiation between Jukt Micronics and a 15-year-old. There was no Ian Restil. There wasn’t even a real Jukt Micronics. The whole company as well as every single word in “Hack Heaven” was a fiction conjured up by its author Stephen Glass.

And that wasn’t the only story Glass had either partially or entirely embellished. There were dozens. The New Republic began receiving a great deal of criticism from skeptics of Glass’ articles but Glass was so well liked among the staff that many would stand up to defend him. Even as criticism mounted against him, editor Mike Kelly wrote an angry letter against Glass’ critics that even demanded an apology. The reason “Hack Heaven” is so infamous in the journalism world is because it was the article that ended Stephen Glass’ journalism career, the one that toppled his whole house of cards.

Glass is what some would call a pathological liar, meaning one who habitually or compulsively lies. And Glass was so efficient in maneuvering around The New Republic’s fact-checking protocols that the editors allowed him to continue despite growing charges that Glass’ pieces were full of inaccuracies, distortions, and even possible plagiarism.

It wasn’t until “Hack Heaven” that The New Republic opened its eyes to the truth. The beginning of the end for Glass came when Adam Penenberg, a  journalist at Forbes became interested in doing his own follow-up story.

That’s when Penenberg discovered something strange about Jukt Micronics. Despite being said to have been a major software company, the name didn’t show up on a basic internet search. He contacted Mike Kelly’s successor at The New Republic, Charles Lane, to check Glass’ facts.

And when Lane confronted Glass about the holes in his story Glass followed standard procedure and brought in all his notes. But he also brought a whole lot of excuses. Every hole in Glass’ story came with a plausible excuse or an admission of an honest error. And when Glass showed Lane the Jukt Micronics website, Lane instantly recognized it as far too amateur to pass as a legitimate corporation’s site. Soon enough, Glass shamefully admitted that it was beginning to look more and more like he was being deliberately deceived by his contacts, contacts who could never be reached by phone and would perpetually be returning Lane’s answering machine messages at odd hours.

But Glass had an explanation for everything. And when the explanations grew thinner and thinner Lane became convinced Glass had duped them all. So he had Glass retrace his steps in the article. The two of them traveled to Bethesda, Maryland to see the Hyatt hotel where the alleged hacker convention and Jukt Micronics meeting took place.

This trip is superbly depicted in the film Shattered Glass, which dramatizes the downfall of Stephen Glass. On the audio commentary of the DVD, the real life Charles Lane describes what went through his mind the moment they’d arrived at the hotel and saw the space Glass alleged the conference took place. It became obvious then that no such conference could have possibly occurred there, that this was the first time Glass had ever been to the hotel, and that Glass’ career was over.

So what can we learn from the Stephen Glass affair and from the fictitious Jukt Micronics? Well first I think it demonstrates how anyone is capable of being fooled, even savvy journalists and fact-checkers. This incident shows how easy it is to spread misinformation even in the age of the internet. But I think it also shows how damned near impossible it is to keep a good lie going forever.

I’m reminded of the infamous Piltdown Man hoax, often cited by creationists as evidence that evolution isn’t true. The Piltdown Man represents a unique case where, like Stephen Glass’ fictions, a deliberate and well-crafted fraud was created by someone with intimate knowledge of precisely what it would take to fool the experts. But eventually, as new and conflicting evidence surfaced, scientists discovered the truth about the Piltdown Man hoax.

With all the checks and balances that exist today, even the best hoaxes will only fool the experts for so long. The most important lesson here is to be cautious when accepting anything you read. Just because someone reports about a software company it doesn’t mean it’s real. But you can trust every single fact in this article though. Just trust me.

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1 comment to What does Jukt Micronics teach us about fact-checking?

  • Michael Rosch

    Unfortunately, the Gotham Skeptic has been discontinued and at least for the immediate future, is no longer publishing new articles.

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