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.