Editor's note on Dec. 17, 2015: Harper's Magazine has now retracted its 1998 story by then-journalist Stephen Glass. In a letter to the magazine, Glass details the fabrications in his piece, which was headlined "Prophets and Losses: The Futures Market for Phone Psychics." The magazine says "at least 5,647 of the 7,902 words of 'Prophets and Losses' were based on fabrications." In a note posted with the letter from Glass, Harper's editors say it is the first retraction in the magazine's 165-year history.
NPR originally wrote on this page that "Prophets and Losses" told "the true story of Glass's short career as a telephone psychic. Despite having no psychic ability, Glass was able to get hired and began receiving calls from people searching for psychic-related answers. He says a large majority of callers are African-American and that companies target them with advertising. He says he quit after feelings of guilt over the deception overwhelmed him."
Now, nearly 18 years later, Glass has admitted to Harper's – and thus indirectly to NPR – that his account "should not be relied upon in any way." It is one of many stories that the former associate editor at The New Republic fabricated when he was a journalist. His misdeeds were dramatized in the movie Shattered Glass.
In 2002, NPR posted a note on this page. It said:
"In May 1998, The New Republic fired editor Stephen Glass for fabricating characters and situations in several of his articles. Soon afterward, Harper's rechecked the Glass' February 1998 piece on telephone psychics and confirmed that Glass indeed had worked as a telephone psychic. However, Harper's could not confirm details of Glass' conversations with 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. Harper's canceled Glass' contract for two more articles. (Washington Post, May 18, 1998, p.D1)"
We have removed that note, updated the headline and linked this page to our corrections page.
Listen to 1998 Stephen Glass interview
Below is the transcript of the interview. It is here because we did not want to erase history and because it provides insights into Glass, not because we believe he spoke truthfully:
NPR's Weekend Edition
Feb. 15, 1998
LIANE HANSEN, host: In the February issue of Harper's magazine there's an article called "Prophets and Losses."
Stephen Glass, an associate editor at The New Republic magazine, writes about phone psychics. His story is based on his own experience as one during the summer of 1996. Stephen Glass is in the studio.
Why did you apply for a job as a phone psychic?
STEPHEN GLASS, AUTHOR: Basically I'm an insomniac, as all my friends know. And there's sort of that phase in the middle of the middle of the night when you can't write your stories 'cause your mind's too foggy, and so you're stuck watching TV.
And the choices on TV are between C-SPAN — you know, showing these boring
rallies from the middle of nowhere, 'cause no one's watching even C-SPAN at
that hour — or home shopping, or phone psychic commercials — half-hour
infomercials with Dionne Warwick and Kenny Kingston and tons of sort of B stars who are urging you to call and have all your questions about the lottery or
romance or relationships or your job answered.
And so I thought well, sure, I'm worried about my financial future too. But I
thought it'd be better to be a phone psychic and get paid to do this at this
hour, as opposed to calling the phone psychic. So I sort of made a bet with a
friend that I could get hired.
HANSEN: So what did you do, look up the names of all of these psychic networks?
GLASS: It's actually very, very, very hard to get hired as a phone psychic.
They're hard to track down, the companies.
So what I did is I went through the back of like music magazines and the cable
guide, where they have tons of ads. And I called the corporate headquarters and said that I was a psychic and that I bet — I knew that they were going to hire me.
A lot of them did not fall for this. A couple of them said, "You're a psychic,
you should know we're not gonna hire you."
GLASS: But one did. A couple let me send in my resumes. And they claimed to
only have real psychics, so you have to go through all these, you know, tests
to prove that you're a psychic.
Now I should warn you: I have no psychic ability whatsoever. I mean, I can't
remember what I had for breakfast this morning, let alone what's gonna happen tomorrow. So...
HANSEN: So what did you know? I mean, essentially you had to audition for them as a phone psychic on the phone, right?
GLASS: Right. Well, first you had to write essays explaining how you had your
psychic power. They wanted references. But I had no references.
So I claimed I did all my training in England and that everybody had died
tragically. So that way there'd be no one they could call.
Most people who write to psychic networks and claim that they are psychic say
they can predict things like Hurricane Hugo and how it's gonna save many, many people's lives. I figured they get tons of letters like that. I was gonna go
for the very mundane.
I said I predict things like what kind of lunch my mom would give me when I was a child. And then I had small, small, and small — and even larger than - -
even larger than that — revelations. And so I figured that approach would work
And it worked wonderfully. They called me back and they said I had to be
interviewed by the board of psychics. But before I could be interviewed by the
board of psychics I had to get through the chief of psychic affairs, or the
person who's in charge of — she's the chief psychic.
So what I did is I called lots of phone psychics to figure out how they read
me. And I sort of wrote down exactly the way they approached me. And then I
went to a Chinese restaurant. And, you know, at Chinese restaurants you get
those place mats...
GLASS: ... that have like, you know — I'm the year of the rat; my brother's
the year of the dragon. You know, they're based on, like, years, and they say,
like, a few famous people that were born, you know, the same year you were, as well as some just very vague generalities, and like what other type of person
you should marry.
I took that. And I also went through tons of copies of Astrology Monthly. And
I figured I could just go on this stuff and talk to the person and just say
very leading things.
And I did one other smart thing, which is that I found out who the chief of
psychic affairs was and called the company and asked them vague questions about her. And all I found out was that she was — just gotten this job. She was a good psychic, and she'd just become chief of psychic affairs.
So when she called me, that drove everything. When she said to me, "So what's
my family think?" I said, "Oh, you know, they're really happy about your new
job, but they're gonna wish you had — spend more time with you."
"How's my financial outlook?"
I'd say, "Well, your new job shows that it's gonna be good."
And then when I couldn't do it — like say, she would ask something like what's
her favorite color — I just went with whatever mine was. I figured, you know,
if it's mine, it can't be all that different. And so — or I'd say, oh, my
psychic powers aren't that strong, I can't tell.
HANSEN: And they bought this?
GLASS: Oh, they thought I was the best psychic ever. In fact, I was on the path
to becoming psychic of the month.
HANSEN: Before you become psychic of the month — OK, you get — you're a total charlatan, you're a total fake, you get the job. They what? They install a
phone line into your house? How does it work?
GLASS: When somebody calls the psychic network they call a 1-900 number, which means they pay about $4 per minute, which comes out to $240 an hour. They're more expensive than any sort of analyst you'd ever go to.
And they get connected — they get a list of options that says do you know your
regular psychic — if so, type in their extension number. So I had regular
clients who picked out me and would call me, you know, on a nightly basis.
If you don't have a regular psychic, or your regular psychic is busy, they say
you can listen to the messages. And there's like a five-, seven-second message
that every psychic gives.
HANSEN: Now, how would your bosses determine whether or not you were doin' a good job, if you were doin' the job that they hired you to do?
GLASS: They kept very careful numbers. And it was all based on how long you
could keep somebody on the telephone because they pay by the minute. There was no — there was no care if your predictions are right or wrong. It's how many minutes can you keep the average client on?
And there was competitions.
HANSEN: This could be very funny, except for the fact that real people were
calling you thinking that you had some kind of answer for them. Who called you?
GLASS: Lots and lots of people called me who had many, many problems in their lives. I had women who called — a woman who called me that worked at a
fast-food restaurant and was breaking up — her boyfriend worked there as well.
And he was hitting on another woman who worked as a cashier or made the fries, and she threw the special sauce on him.
And it was this whole involved story that I listened to. And she'd gotten fired.
And I didn't know what to do. I felt like this was sort of her only option. And
so I told her to write a letter to her employer and ask for her job back.
And that was sort of the path of the stories in the very beginning for a while.
There was a man who couldn't really clothe his children because he was saving
all of his money to buy a VCR. It was very, very depressing — poor people.
HANSEN: And yet he was paying 80 — what — how many dollars, to have you...
GLASS: Easily $80 to talk to me. You have people who call who are suicidal. You
have people who call up who are just going through extreme emotional positions.
HANSEN: Wasn't a woman calling about whether she should leave her husband? I mean, there were...
GLASS: People call about whether or not they should leave their husband. They
tell you — whether or not they should change religions. They talk to you about
changing jobs. And they really change everything based on what you say.
This propelled me to become basically the religious right of a psychic.
HANSEN: What is that?
GLASS: I was so scared of giving anybody bad advice, so I told everybody just,
you know, go to see your priest, go back to school, get off the drugs. I told
everybody that they were born under a very dark cloud and they would never win the lottery...
GLASS: ... because I just couldn't live with myself. But most psychics, I'm
sure, don't do that. They tell them that — I mean, common among psychics is to
be a "scare-cropper" is what they're called. And that means to tell them very,
very terrifying stories so they call you back every night.
HANSEN: How long did it take you to feel guilty that you were, I mean, a fake?
I mean, you were really ripping these people off.
GLASS: The progress was over a month. I started to feel extremely guilty at the
end. What happens is phone psychics are part of a con. The difference is it's
unlike any other con in the world in that the person being conned thinks
they're getting some real value, and the person committing the con actually
thinks they're doing something of value because all of the psychics I met all
thought they were psychic.
It's the fact that I didn't think I was psychic that made me aware of the con.
And that's what made it really difficult.
HANSEN: Statistics are extraordinary. You include, I think, some of them in the
story that you've written: 70 percent of the Americans who call these psychic
phone lines are black, low income. Was it your experience that these people
were actually targeted?
GLASS: Yeah, that would be my experience. Almost everybody who called me was — either had some — given some indication that they were African-American. They'd either talked of racism in their life, or they had referred to black leaders in a way that they had identified with.
They'd given me some indication through the call that they were black. And a
huge percentage of the remaining portion are other minorities. They definitely
seem to be targeted. If you watch the ads, you'll see that it's frequently sort
of has-been black celebrities who get on there and...
HANSEN: Hmm. Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network, they've just declared bankruptcy. I mean, that — I don't know how much longer that one's going to be going on.
GLASS: That's right. They've declared bankruptcy. I think a lot of people are
interested in this as good news that these psychic things are going away. I
think that's actually the wrong approach.
I think they're stronger than ever and that the Psychic Friends Network was
either ill-managed or just — there's just so much more competition. Now
there's like 50 networks. There used to be three. And so the Psychic Friends
Network dominated the industry. But that's a company that's been wreaked with problems in the past, so...
HANSEN: The subtitle to your article "Prophets and Losses" is "The Futures
Market for Phone Psychics." This is a weird question, because, obviously, I'm
saying what is the future of phone psychics?
GLASS: I think they're gonna get stronger and stronger. Every prediction that
I've seen by sort of telecommunications experts says as the millennium
approaches, more people want psychic help.
You see there's more psychic fairs in America than there have ever been.
There's more — there's just more interest in future telling. And because of
that, and because of the privacy it offers and the immediacy, I see no
prediction that it won't increase. Most predictions say it will double by the
end of the century.
HANSEN: Stephen Glass. He is an associate editor at The New Republic here in Washington, DC. His article "Prophets and Losses" appears in the February issue of Harper's magazine.
Thanks for coming in.
GLASS: Thank you.