When the “Writer” Isn’t: Ghost Writing for Editorial Pages


Today’s Washington Post editorial pages feature an “op-ed” column entitled Sarah Palin on the politicization of the Copenhagen climate conference. Never mind that the column is full of falsehoods; the Post and most other papers often run letters, op-ed columns and editorials that contain falsehoods. (Sometimes they correct the errors; often they don’t.)

My issue here is with the column’s tagline:

The writer was the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president and governor of Alaska from 2006 to 2009.

Does anyone who understands media and PR really buy this — the notion that Palin wrote the column in question? Of course not.

Op-ed pieces that run under the bylines of famous politicians, celebrities and business people are almost never written by those people, just as they rarely write their autobiographies, even first drafts, by themselves. They don’t have time. Their staffers and PR people research and write the pieces.

Society has a serious blind spot about this kind of thing — and applies a pernicious double standard. If we catch a student paying someone to write his or her paper for a class, we give the student an F. Or, in some cases (like a journalism school), we might even ask the student to leave.

So why do newspaper editors think it’s fine to wink at obvious deception? They could put a stop to the fiction tomorrow, but probably won’t. The continuing lure of “free content,” especially with famous names at the top, is an ingrained habit, however wrong.

Ghost-written op-eds are often compared with speechwriter-written speeches. Since we all know that most famous people don’t write their own lines for speeches, goes this logic, we should assume the same with a byline — whether on a book or an op-ed.

Call me naive, but I’d like to hold journalists to a slightly higher standard. Newspapers have given away enough of their credibility in recent times. Maybe this is a place to regain a little.

UPDATE: A Twitter commenter asked, essentially, what’s the harm if everyone knows it’s happening. First, not everyone does know. Sure, media-savvy people are well aware of the fakery. I’m not certain that everyone takes for granted that these are ghost-written, however.

Again, the point is not that celebrity politicians are going to stop doing this. It’s that newspapers, which should care about little things like credibility, should stop being complicit in the deception. Even if it turns out to be true that everyone knows, it’s still wrong.

5 thoughts on “When the “Writer” Isn’t: Ghost Writing for Editorial Pages”

  1. couldn’t agree more. Certainly part of the accepted deceptiveness in the pr biz. Why not say it was ghost written but that the famous person subscribes to the view point…wouldn’t that accomplish the same thing? Instead of a “by” line you could use a “from” line which would still let the paper get the famous person’s name on the piece but in an honest way.

  2. I entirely disagree. (Non-disclaimer: I have no personal stake in the outcome of this discussion.)

    First of all, you are conflating misappropriation of someone else’s content with paying or otherwise compensating someone to write for you. It’s one thing if I give someone else’s speech or publish someone else’s writing as my own without compensating them in some way, either with credit or with money as the circumstances may call for. Nobody should do that.

    But what’s wrong with students (or faculty members) paying someone to write papers for them? Because members of the academic community are judged directly on the content and form of what they write. This is not true for almost anyone else, certainly not for politicians. Allowing students to substitute someone else’s work for their own gums up the evaluation process that is applied to them, and diminishes the value of the credential to anyone else.

    If you make a telephone call to an animal-removal company to come and remove a stray gorilla from your house, and you get a letter signed by the president of the company setting out the terms and conditions, does it bother you that this is a form letter composed by some lawyer who may not even work for the company any more? Of course not. What matters is that a representative of the company signed it at the bottom. You judge the letter on its merits as an offer to do business, and accept or reject it as such, not based on the mismatch between the actual author and the signatory.

    Likewise, politicians are judged on what policies they adhere to (ultimately, of course, on whether they get votes), not on who expresses those policies in words for them. If the op-ed attributed opinions to Palin she didn’t hold, that would be cause for complaint (not least by Palin!). But if not, then I don’t see the problem with it.

    1. Let’s reduce this to the simplest issue: Is it appropriate for a newspaper, which is supposed to deal in truth, to publish something it knows not to be true — e.g. a byline for someone who almost certainly didn’t write the column? I say it’s not appropriate.

      Journalists should not actively participate in fakery.

      1. I assume you dropped a stitch in that last sentence.

        In any case, note that bylines on actual stories are the name of the reporter, who may have done the work, but whose words have most certainly been heavily revised by the desk in the interests of rendering what is often hastily dictated semi-gibberish as actual prose.

        1. Whoops, of course I meant they should NOT participate in fakery.

          If an editor has done a wholesale — and I mean nearly total — rewrite, the editor should share a byline. Normal editing doesn’t necessarily mean heavy revision.

          Maybe news orgs should emulate the Economist and drop bylines in all but a very few cases…

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