Op-Ed Ghost Writing and Journalistic Ethics

Julian Sanchez notes that, while there has been substantial sturm und drang over recent disclosures of pundits being paid by lobbyists or even the government to write columns endorsing their policies,

Why does nobody much seem to have a problem with the common-as-water practice of op-ed ghost writing? Sure, presumably the nominal author of a piece written by some research assitant endorses the contents, but isn’t it a little odd that editors who make “disclosure” and “transparency” professional mantras seem not to blink at running articles purporting to be written by one person and actually written by another?

It’s a fair point. Mostly, I think, it’s because a cabinet secretary or other senior official is presumed to be speaking for his office whereas an Armstrong Williams or Maggie Gallagher or Doug Bandow is presumed to be speaking for themself.

People in important positions have subordinates who do most of the work, which the senior merely oversees. While it’s true that Abraham Lincoln found time to write the Gettysburg Address, we typically don’t expect presidents to write their own speeches. Similarly, if the chairman of General Motors is pleaing his company’s case in the op-ed pages of a major newspaper, we can be assured that he signed off on the column even if he didn’t write it. It’s not the wordsmithing that we care about but the message.

Conversely, when I read the column of a professional pundit, I operate under the assumption that I’m getting them. When I read George Will, Michael Kinsley, or Charles Krauthammer–or, for that matter, Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan, or Glenn Reynolds–I don’t do so in a vacuum but rather in the context of a relationship that I’ve built with them through the course of their writing. While the arguments they make in a given piece are still the main thing, their words are intertwined with their reputations. If Will takes exception to a Bush administration policy it takes on added weight because he is generally loyal to the Republican party; ditto if Kinsley agrees with the GOP.

This is true in other walks of life, too. Logically, no one should care if their local D.J. is getting paid on the side by Sony to play their songs. Either the audience likes the songs they hearing or they don’t. In reality, though, listeners feel betrayed.

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As an aside, Julian and Ross Douthat are doing a superb job subbing for Andrew Sullivan. I read both their work with some regularity but they’re suddenly much more prolific with the spotlight of Sully’s blog on them.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. bryan says:

    Similarly, if the chairman of General Motors is pleaing his company’s case in the op-ed pages of a major newspaper, we can be assured that he signed off on the column even if he didn’t write it. It’s not the wordsmithing that we care about but the message.

    Sorry, but no. If the Chairman of General Motors doesn’t know enough to put two sentences together, but gets space in a major newspaper, the newspaper at least should have the decency to print who the actual author is, because it sure isn’t the chairman of General Motors.

    Which is one of the reasons I don’t work in PR. 🙂