Seasoned journalist and commentator Dan Gillmor argues that media outlets are acting irresponsibly when they publish ghostwritten op-eds from political candidates and personalities:
One school of thought says ghostwritten op-eds are a lot like speechwriter-written speeches. Since we all know that most famous people don’t write all their own lines for speeches, goes this defence of the practice, we should assume the same with a byline – whether on a book or an op-ed. It’s a tempting analogy, but wrong in a key way: a false byline is an outright, direct lie. And news organisations that run these pieces are encouraging dishonesty, which they compound, albeit with good motives, by helpfully editing often turgid prose to make it more compelling.
Gillmor’s dismay over the proliferation of op-eds with candidate bylines is understandable; places like the Wall Street Journal carry them nearly every other day, causing readers looking for something other than reconstituted “turgid prose” and platitudes to ignore them.
The analogy between teleprompter-assisted speeches and published prose may indeed be problematic, but perhaps less so when considering what the modern campaign apparatus has become. It’s revealing when candidates slip into referring to themselves in the plural — some might be irritated at the use of the “royal we” — but it’s always struck me as honest, an admission that they are just the frontman of a giant apparatus that includes professionals and grassroots activists. There may be a way forward here: let politicians keep their byline on ghosted items, but only if they use the majestic plural pronoun, a practice that would no doubt be so annoying as to lead to the disappearance of these press-releases-turned-op-eds altogether.
Imagine a presumably ghosted Sarah Palin op-ed that Gillmor seems particularly exercised about, rewritten in a plural voice:
We’ve always believed that policy should be based on sound science, not politics. As governor of Alaska, we took a stand against politicized science when we sued the federal government over its decision to list the polar bear as an endangered species … . We got clobbered for our actions by radical environmentalists nationwide, but we stood by our view that adding a healthy species to the endangered list under the guise of “climate change impacts” was an abuse of the Endangered Species Act.
Gillmor also leaves unclear where to draw the line between ghosting and heavy editing, which often involves significant rewriting. Even in an age of blogging, the best writers still benefit from a good editor — and surely this is true for most of The Honorable ones, too.