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Garden variety
An Iranian teaches an American a lesson about journalism. The film skips the Iranian part

By Kambiz Foroohar
December 2, 2003
The Iranian

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 called Stephen Glass, who made up 27 stories at The New Republic (TNR), moves inexorably forward.

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 an entertainment lawyer.

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.

I relay 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, I'm 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 human nature] 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 too closely.

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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