When PR Ghostwriters Get Busted

Are there ethical lines that we cross when we write an “authored article” for our clients? Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa thinks the Wyeth pharmaceutical company and its writing PR firm went too far in ghostwriting articles for doctors in medical journals supporting a Wyeth hormone replacement drug. The New York Times ran a story on Saturday in which Grassley said “any attempt to manipulate the scientific literature, that can in turn mislead doctors to prescribe drugs that may not work and/or cause harm to their patients, is very troubling.”

From the Times story:

Doug Petkus, a Wyeth spokesman, said Friday that Mr. Grassley was recycling old arguments.

“The authors of the articles in question, none of whom were paid, exercised substantive editorial control over the content of the articles and had the final say, in all respects, over the content,” Mr. Petkus said.

Officials for DesignWrite, a Princeton, N.J., firm, and its parent company, JMI, a medical information company in New York, did not return multiple phone calls and e-mail messages requesting comment.

According to the Times story, quoting internal Wyeth documents from Grassley’s probe, DesignWrite wrote the articles under a Wyeth communications plan, completing the manuscripts before they were “sent to the putative author for review. Any revisions were subject to final approval from the company.”

“Such activities would seem to run afoul of medical journal guidelines,” the Times writes. “The World Assoication of Medical Editors, for example, says ghost authorship — which it defines as a substantial contribution not mentioned in the manuscript — is ‘dishonest and unacceptable.’ “

So the Wyeth spokesperson says the docs have final say, and the Grassley documents, which include a “publicaton plan tracking report” from Wyeth, say the company has final say. There’ s one PR problem.

But overall, what’s Kosher in writing articles for someone else? I thought of all this when, for the second time recently, I offered to write an op-ed kind of article for friends who are too busy to do for their own companies what their companies do for their clients.

I have an internal gut measurement. If I’m offering to do a first draft, after interviewing the person whose name will be on the piece about what he or she wants to say, and after reading other things that person has written, and then turning the draft over to that person, I feel fine. I’ve been a pump-primer. I’ve gotten something going. It’s close to what the person would have written if he or she had time to sit in front of a computer for a few hours, and the final draft is in that person’s hands.

But occasionally in my PR career I’ve been around programs where pieces have been written entirely by PR people to support a client’s cause and then the PR team goes looking for people to sign the piece, whether an op-ed or a letter to the editor or a bylined article. And that’s made me feel queasy. Greasy. Clearly, in that case, the ideas and viewpoint are coming from the PR people, not the person who signs the piece. And that I don’t want to be part of. It comes down to where the piece is initiated. If it’s hatched in the mind of the person who signs it, and that person goes looking for a writer, that seems Kosher. If not, not.

I was a little surprised, when I moved from the newsroom to a PR agency and wrote a few op-eds with and for clients, that the op-ed editors fully understood that PR people help write these things. They expect that the piece will accurately reflect the executive’s views, they understand that execs get help writing speeches and other things, and they were OK with the process. And so was I.

What about you, PR folks and journalists out there? What do you think is ethical? What crosses a line?

— Bruce Benidt
purchase order financing nice

42 thoughts on “When PR Ghostwriters Get Busted

  1. Your gut-check seems about right to me.

    Another way of looking at things: Take the PR people out of the picture. Op-ed articles, letters to the editor, bylined articles, etc., often by necessity come from “important people,” busy folks with busy jobs and busy- sounding job titles who can’t, won’t or shouldn’t take the time to write them on their own. If they don’t have communication pros to help them out, you know damn well it’s going to be an administrative assistant or the nearest peon who will do it.

    So it’s a fact of life: Busy people have other people do stuff for them.

    But the PR person isn’t the only piece of this puzzle. The person who’s name appears on the article has at least as much responsibility, if not more, for making sure the material is reasonable and conveys information they would themselves convey.

    Sidenote: For the longest time, I had heard the word “peon” but never saw it in writing. Having a rough idea of what it meant, I assumed it was “pee-on,” a crude but humorous commentary on the hierarchical factors at play in the relationship being discussion. If only, right?

  2. bruce benidt says:

    Mike, love the spelling lesson.

    Peon — the people who aren’t getting bailed out by Republican senators who did vote to bail out the Wall Street speculators. Let them eat …

  3. Bruce, I’m glad to see an expression of queasiness about ghosting in the PR world.

    Op-ed editors have all sorts of different reactions to the practice; I’ve known some who were untroubled, some who banned obvious ghostwriting (driving it underground, probably) and many in between. I think your instinct is good: You prime the pump, you help give expression to thoughts and arguments that are already there.

    Even so, to be completely transparent and honest, the best approach in such a case is a double byline. There’s no shame in that: Plenty of famous double-byline teams, like the Washington Post’s Woodstein, have one member who’s mostly the reporter and one who’s mostly the writer.

    In my experience, op-ed editors who object to blatant ghostwriting are bothered by two points: One, everybody’s busy; why should important busy people have an advantage over ordinary busy people in getting access to the op-ed page? Second, the byline is a statement of fact; how can an editor knowingly misrepresent a fact?

    I also think that when you assist in the writing of an op-ed, you should persuade the putative author to make the contact with the editor and pitch the piece, but that’s a story for another day. Keep up the good work.

  4. As someone who makes a large portion of her living from ghostwriting medical articles, I can understand the queasiness factor. I’ve also been on the corporate side and know the pressure to get a good “story” placed in a prestigious publication.

    We try to balance the two by making it clear to clients that we work directly with the physician with no company interference, and in most cases, no company review prior to submission for publication. Those are our terms and we won’t work with companies that take a different view.

    Granted, I’ve churned out my share of drivel over the years, but I hope that we’re sticking to a reasonable ethical standard in the majority of cases.

  5. I started to comment here, then turned it into a post on my own blog.

    Short version. Transparency is the issue.

    Footnote version. My wife was once a medical writer, ghosting physician papers. At some point, she thought, hell, I could do this, went to medical school and became a doctor. She hasn’t had much time for writing since!

  6. jloveland says:

    When I draft something for a client, I have learned most of what I know about the subject at hand from the client. Meetings, interviews, conversations, fact sheets and reports fill my head as I sit down to draft. Therefore, the ideas, opinions and content in the draft are the clients’, not mine. The draft reflects my organization and wording, but I’d argue that even the intial draft is almost entirely the clients’ ideas, opinions, content and style.

    And then there’s editing. Whenever I hand off a draft I tell clients to “make it your own.” And I say it like I mean it. And, believe me, they do make it their own.

    Because the ideas, opinions and content for the piece are client-generated and the clients’ edit and have final say, it is their piece. I’m not the ghostwriter. Truly, I’m the author’s assistant.

    If you doubt that, look at what I write here under my name and what is produced in partnership with clients. The content, opinions, ideas and style in the pieces they author are completely different from the pieces I author. And that’s because my clients are in control of their bylined pieces, not me.

  7. Eric, I love your piont about the inequality — those with lots of resources get easier access to the op-ed page, and those without don’t. Ain’t that America? The wealthy, powerful and important have more access to channels of communication and can get help making their points more persuasive. That’s a larger and more challenging point than the one I’m wrestling with.

    PR folks note Eric’s last paragraph. Eric is commentary editor at the Star Tribune, and this is priceless — and smart — advice.

    I also love hearing from real writers here — Kris, Joe, Charlie (and a great story about your wife, Charlie). I think Eric is asking us for more transparency — a double byline, for example — than most of us are eager to give. Joe is saying that, if we’re really good at this ghostwriting, we fade way into the background and our voice and viewpoint disappear and our clients’ are brought forth. Joe points out the bottom line, I believe — who has final control.

  8. The double byline thought is an interesting one, but a recent case tells me that most clients won’t go for this — when the physician asked that my name be included, the client vetoed.

    As for Joe’s point, I completely agree. It’s not my name out there, it’s their’s.

  9. As a PR person, I have had some op/ed pieces under my name altered by management, partners, etc. that I felt a little quesy and uneasy about it being published under my name — because it had shifted from my personal & professional views.

  10. Ellen says:

    PR firms have also been busted for setting up fake blogs (flogs). Remember “Wal-Marting Across America” a fake set up by Edelman associates and busted open by BusinessWeek? The blogosphere took it from there and it wasn’t pretty. http://tinyurl.com/5czesw

    PR people have to give up the notion that they can control everything…messages, media, clients. It doesn’t work that way anymore.

  11. Jon Austin says:

    And now a word from Satan…did you all grow up in Disneyland?

    In my experience in politics and corporate America, ghosting is the norm; I assume that the vast majority of the content that comes across Eric’s desk and finds its way into the Star Tribune (and other similar forums) had its origins in a cubicle down the hall from the great person’s office. Having seen the “first drafts” of any number of op-eds, this is not a wholly bad thing.

    And, it what we get paid to do. With an expectation that we’re going to do it well. The standard we should aspire to as professionals is, “This is absolutely perfect; we don’t need to change a thing.”

    I’ve ghosted almost every form of communications; speeches for politicians and CEOs, op-eds, submissions to the Congressional record, letters of condolence. I’ve ghosted toasts for the father of the groom. Not once, ever, has a client asked me to “prime the pump” or get the process going. What they want, what they’re paying for, is help in expressing the ideas that are in their heads.

    Sometimes the clients are intimately involved – and sometimes even helpfully so – and that makes it more fun and interesting and it makes the product better. Sometimes they’re completely disengaged (I once ghosted a 75-page white paper for a client who lost interest in the project and forgot to tell me to stop). To me, that fact is a practical consideration, not a moral choice.

    Senator Grassley (who I might speculate – admittedly without knowing the truth – has used the services of ghostwriters) and others on this thread, however, want to distinguish between material ghosted for a specific individual and pieces written “on spec” to be placed first with an author and then with a publication. I’m not sure I accept the difference.

    My first ghosting work was in 1980, writing letters to the editor in support of political candidates; I could generate 5-10 an hour. The time-consuming part of the job was not writing the drafts, it was finding the people to sign them (not because it was hard to find supporters, but this is back in the days before e-mail, before faxes, for God’s sake). My cousin, the candidate’s wife’s best friend, the brother of the 7th ward committeeman were all called to the cause and answered willingly.

    And, that consent is the key to this – ghosting is a consensual process, no matter how involved the bylined author is in the creation of the piece or whether the name on the byline is known before the first draft is written or not. Once the he or she consents to add his or her name to the piece, it becomes an expression of their position – regardless of whether they wrote every word or changed not a comma.

    I guess it’s possible to imagine a scenario where someone might be compelled or coerced to lend their name to a ghosted piece, but in 28 years I’ve never experienced it. Just the opposite, in fact. In some cases, it’s harder to pitch the people than the publications.

    Case in point: Recently, I authored an op-ed in support of a group of professionals being attacked for practices that are legal and beneficial (although not without controversy). We asked more than a dozen highly regarded professionals not party to the controversy to consider signing on to the piece (with any edits they wanted, of course).

    …chirp, chirp, chirp…deafening silence followed by a series of “I’m not comfortable…” beggings off.

    All of the people we approached agreed with the underlying message and the reasoning behind the op-ed (why else would we ask them in the first place?), but not one of them wanted to take on the critics in this fight and risk being drawn into the line of fire.

    I wish a couple of them would have come to a different conclusion, but I can’t say their logic was flawed or that they misapprehended the risk that comes from being part of the public debate. People understand very well the whole concept of lending their names to something and they are exceedingly careful how they do it.

    Senator Grassley also seems to suggest that it’s wrong to communicate effectively and persuasively. Gosh darn it, these pieces are just so well written, it’s just not fair!


    We are hired to be advocates for a point of view and our job is to do that as effectively and persuasively as we can with the bounds of ethics. That means we make the article or op-ed as powerful as it can be and still defensible on the facts, the science and the conclusions. Like priming the pump above, not once, ever, has a client said, “We just need this one to be mostly effective.”

    But, woe unto us if we step over the lines in these areas as there are other advocates, pushing other points of view, who are just as good or better than us, who will seize those screw-ups and kill us with them. And, of course, there’s the media – and the blogosphere – to crosscheck us as well. When that happens – and it does – you can damn well be certain you’re going to see some transparency as the first body under the bus is always the PR firm.

    About 70 percent of the time, my work gets slightly to moderately edited, but is substantially the same as the draft I submitted. About 20 percent of the time, it goes out untouched. Only about one time in ten does the client or the ultimate author make wholesale revisions that render the final product unrecognizable from the draft. When the latter happens, IMHO, I haven’t earned my money.

    As I alluded to above, I think the body politic is generally better off because of ghostwriters. Some of the most successful people I’ve ever met – pols, businesspeople, lawyers, scientists, doctors – can’t write a coherent, persuasive sentence to save their lives. If they have the desire and the resources to get help for this shortcoming, how is that any different from hiring any other professional service?

    Eric and others advocate for more transparency in the process and I don’t have any problems with that – lawyers sign briefs and CPA sign tax returns – but I’m not sure we’ll see a trend in that direction any time soon and it doesn’t really change the reality of the situation. If Henry Kissinger and Jon Austin are listed as co-authors of an op-ed on Iraq, is anybody really going to give a damn who wrote which parts? Does it matter in terms of impact on the public dialogue on that topic? And, ultimately, is anyone going to be persuaded – or dissuaded – on those issues by the addition of the ghost’s name? I think not.

    If we do want to promote transparency, let’s start it with all the “name” columnists who have assistants and researchers churning up the first drafts of their musings to run under their bylines.

    – Beelzebub Austin

  12. Dennis Lang says:

    Love the insider’s view on a subject that, as a completely casual spectator, I had no idea was even a subject–never thinking to question attribution–until you brought it up. Great discussion.

  13. Joe Loveland says:

    When a client doesn’t change any or much of my draft, that doesn’t mean that the client has agreed to adopt my point-of-view. In fact, it means the exact opposite. It means that I have so thoroughly captured their style and point-of-view that my own style and point-of-view vanished.

    The ghostwriter is not a Svengali. The ghostwriter is an articulate mimic. The egomaniac in us doesn’t always like to admit that, but it is true. And the person being mimicked and owning ultimate approval is rightly the person on the byline.

  14. Hornseth says:

    What Austin said (from his bottomless pit of hellfire).

    And I used to think I was all special and everything because I ghosted a wedding toast. Of course, Austin’s done it too. Spoilsport.

  15. Eileen Smith says:

    Great conversation. The gut check usually works for me. In my current role, my wonderful boss whose name is on the letter/commentary, etc. writes the first draft — simply getting all her thoughts on the topic on “paper” or into my brain. My job it to make it make sense to real people. She always has the final say.
    In previous jobs when my gut said something was wrong, I found a new job.

  16. Jon Austin says:

    Hornseth –

    You’re still special to me.

    My recollection of my wedding toast is the client insisted it include something about golf. I think it end up being how marriage is a little bit like playing a Par 5 dogleg.

    It’s a wonder I get any repeat business at all.

    Loveland is absolutely right in both of his comments about the best way to do ghosting: get the client to write the damn thing for you, preferably over lunch.

    The absolute best way to write a speech is this: take your client to lunch at a nice, fairly quiet place on a day when he or she can spend 1.5-2 hours lingering over coffee. Plunk down a recorder at the beginning of the lunch (a little digital one that records hours unobtrusively) and then just talk – what’s on his/her mind, how’s the business doing, where have they been lately, what are they reading, etc., etc. Most of this is the kind of conversation you’d have with anyone over lunch, but some of it is directed conversation about the speech – what do they want to say, who’s the audience, etc.

    At the end of the lunch, you’ve got an hour or more of background and detail on the speech, a sense of the client’s speaking style, words they favor, etc. You’ve got lots of color and background for anecdotes and – huzzah – even some humor. I’ve transcribed conversations like this that have been close to first drafts (my first draft, not the first draft I give to the client).

    Rough way to make a living.

    – Austin

  17. PM says:

    So is the situation any different for a historian who writes a book that turns out mostly to be “ghosted”? Where does the role of research assistant and ghost writer differ? If you get paid does that mean that no one can claim plagiarism?

    Ellen–do any of your students ever have someone else ghost one of their papers? Not really the same thing, is it? And the reason why is that it is supposed to be their own work, right? Sort of like a speech? Who does get the credit.

    I just want to point out that different areas have different standards–ghostwriting in academia is definitely not OK. There are some very prominent academics who have been fairly harshly criticized for their use of “research assistants”. In politics and PR, it is the norm.

    Satan, can you reconcile these for me, please?


    (no more recorders when we lunch!!!)

  18. Ellen Mrja says:

    I’m not Satan.

    PM: You make an excellent point about the difference in standards depending upon situation.

    My students most certainly are not supposed to use ghost writers. I may be naive but I believe they do not do so because they know we the faculty know their “voice,” their writing styles and abilities. It would “sound” wrong if suddenly an average student writer produced the Gettysburg Address.

    But in PR, if you’re doing your job correctly, YOU should have no voice at all. I should only “hear” the voice of your client.

  19. Jon Austin says:

    Ellen, don’t worry…I think PM was correctly identifying me as Satanic. You are – in every respect – angelic.

    I am completely situational on the topic of ghosting. Tell me what the rules in a particular situation are and I’ll conform to them (OK, I’ll conform to the rules I accept as valid).

    For example, it is – and should be – completely against the rules to ghost academic work for valid reasons, i.e. because we’re trying to teach the little buggers something so that they won’t move back home and sponge off their parents.


    There’s a bunch of gray in that black-and-white statement, isn’t there? Is it OK to edit a student’s paper? How much? How well? What’s the line between editing and rewriting?

    Ditto a scientific paper submitted to peer-reviewed publication; can you edit it at all? What if the author speaks and writes English poorly or not at all? Do authorship requirements extend to graphics?

    – Austin

    Correction: I misstated the extent of my ghosting career ; it actually stated circa 1972 when I ran a lucrative – and popular – business ghosting excuse notes for classmates. Unbelievably, I had good penmanship and sounded like a grown-up in those days. I think I’m regressing.

  20. Ellen Mrja says:

    Austin: You’re correct in saying that there is editing and rewriting in academe. But ghost writing? That would be a big no-no.

    Example, a peer-reviewed journal would simply reject a manuscript with many errors, stylistic, grammatical, whatever. No one does a line edit on that.

    I don’t know how the rules have changed now that we’re sharing more scholarship globally. But I don’t think being a foreign speaker would extend you a pass on poor writing.

    Example, I would never attempt to submit a course proposal to Etudier a Sciences, Po, in French. Heck, I just had to look that place up on Google.

  21. Austin, you are Satan. And we love you for it. And Mick and I have sympathy for you.

    How is writing letters to the editor and shopping around for authors not Astroturf? It’s fake. It’s bullshit. It’s the kind of PR sludge that replaces real civic discourse with propaganda. It’s Milli Vanilli or the Chinese girl at the Olympics lipsynching.

    When your former airline hired Shandwick to help persuade Minnesota to pass some public financing the airline’s way, writing letters to the editor and finding people around the state to sign and send them was part of our program. And it made me feel slimy. It wasn’t real. We weren’t just advocates, we were special-effects artists creating fake backdrops for movie scenes.

    You reached PR puberty in politics, where “everyone does it” is part of the race to the bottom of the cesspool. And it’s part of why politicians are held in such low regard.

    What if we found out that the Obama campaign had sent out $20 each to a million people, asking them to send the $20 back to the Obama campaign so he could say he had a million small donors? We’d realize that Obama wasn’t being the change he seeks, to cite Gandhi. And we’d be disappointed and disillusioned. Cuz we’d see that Obama had only created the illusion of public support. Like we were creating the illusion of support for public funding for Northwest.

    I wasn’t born in Disneyland, but I did just fall off a turnip truck.

    I love the analogy of students hiring ghostwriters to do their papers. That’s one of those metaphors that shifts your perspective and makes you see the issue from a new angle. It strips away the refuge of conventional wisdom that it’s OK to ghostwrite in one industry but not for another. Just because it’s always been done doesn’t mean it’s right.

    Who can trust a demonstration supporting or opposing an issue when it’s created by PR or political advance folks? What if huge numbers of people at Obama rallies during the campaign had been recruited to come? We’d have a candidate creating the illusion of public support, and pretty soon that illusion crowds out reality. Obama drew huge crowds because of who he is and what he says. If he was, instead, somebody dreamed up by PR folks, we’d have had an election the same way Russia has elections.

    I want grass, not astroturf.

  22. Dennis Lang says:

    The deeper your folks get into this subject the more thought provoking and disturbing it becomes. Wow, P/R as “special effects artists”–great phrase:The idea that, what the hell, we’ll just create the “truth”.

    And global p/r monster Shandwick had no issue with faking letters to the editor on behalf of its client? But how can they justify this? The Crowd has offered conjecture and insight on this subject–“authenticity”– since that spring article where some firms seemed to advocate “lieing” as a worthy communications technique. (Is that in the archives somewhere?) This subject also relates well to MK’s reprise of “…obliterating the lines…'” posted today.

  23. PM says:

    I have a friend of mine who does astroturf, and is pretty good at it. Mostly as an independent contractor to a large PR firm (who shall remain nameless). My favorite gig of his (he’s not doing it anymore–and I don’t think anyone is now) was to create grassroots “smoker’s rights” groups. Basically, RJR and PM would give him lists of names, including some who were interested in being leaders. He’d basically train them in what to do, help them write and place letters to the editor, teach them how to lobby, teach them how to testify before committees, tell them what to say and how to do it all. Of course, he was telling them how to do what they wanted to do (lets ignore the minor question of addiction and free will for the moment). He just helped out a bunch of people who wanted to do this anyway, right? Wasn’t he just an educator, like any other teacher?

    Just stirring the pot….

  24. My favorite ghosting challenge (not) was for the client who told me after reading a draft, “Stop trying to make me sound interesting.”

    A close second would be writing for the Chairman and CEO of a Fortune 100 company, whose staff would bring me in, show me last year’s speech, and say, “We want something more interesting.” Then they’d point me in a direction and I’d come up with all kinds of fresh, relevant stuff to carry their message. They’d say, this is really great, and eventually cut it all out until the speech was just like last year’s. After two years of this, I stopped writing for them — as, I expect, any self-respecting writer in town has done.

  25. Jon Austin says:

    Benidt –

    I love you. When you get down here, I’m gonna have you sit right next to me. It’s extra toasty next to the throne.

    Astroturf astrosmurf…real people sign the letters and the op-eds and express opinions that they agree with (else they wouldn’t sign them). Is that creating the illusion of support that doesn’t really exist or simply making it easy, convenient and – hopefully – thoughtful for people to articulate support they come to naturally?

    The latter, of course. I can’t remember the details of the NWA program ’cause I’m so damned old and it was so damned long ago, but I’m 100 percent confident that no body parts had to be twisted to get those signatures.

    Like certain other professions, a good PR person knows where the money is kept. If you’re in the building trades, you want big companies to build big projects and even a dyed-in-the-wool Wobbly trade unionist can find common ground with a plutocrat if it means jobs for his members; if you’re a community leader with 5,000 employees in your city, you want that company to stay in business and to grow (let’s go out to Hutchinson tomorrow and see how hard it would be to find supporters in favor of tax incentives for Hutchinson Technologies right now).

    For some reason, you and others seem to find it objectionable that we solicit these expressions of support from the willing, but seem to think it’s OK to do so in other aspects of “community organizing” (I kinda like that term; I may keep it).

    To use your Obama example of fundraising…how – exactly – is asking someone to sign a letter to the editor any different from the fundraising solicitations I get – almost daily EVEN AFTER THE DAMNED ELECTION IS OVER!! WILL SOMEBODY TELL PLOUFFE WE WON? – from Team Obama? Is my contribution less valid because I was asked to donate rather than thought of it on my own?

    Of course not. Neither is the post-coitus shakedown Obama’s proxies did to me after every donation of asking me to turn over my contact list to his fundraising machine and to add a little note – partially scripted I might note – to encourage my friends to pony up as well.

    How is an op-ed written by little ‘ol me and signed by you any different from asking people to show up at a rally to protest tax cuts for the wealthy? Should such gestures of support be meaningful only if they happen spontaneously without any midwifery? No buses for people without cars? No calling trees or meetings with organizations that can turn out members? The only signage allowed is what people think to create on their own.

    Of course not. All of this is good advocacy and good political blocking and tackling. It’s what we do – or should be doing – to get our clients and causes heard in a congested, contested media environment, to focus the attention of supporters who – if they’re like my family – barely have time to think about what’s for dinner and where their kids are, much less about their civic responsibilities and interests.

    Quimby –

    I always wondered why that guy calls me “Thing 2” and now I know why. I think you fail to appreciate the elegance of getting paid for the same speech over and over and over. It’s like a residual.

    PM –

    I know that guy. You know I know that guy too.

    – Old Scratch Austin

  26. Dennis Lang says:

    Okay, I have to go eat dinner, but having someone sign a letter they didn’t compose (presenting it as a personal, thoughtful composition) strikes me as a lot different than say, having some p/r guru write a position paper and having numerous supporters sign on. The first is clearly a deceit. Obviously an acceptable practice in the media game, ends justifying the means. Sure, we’re all in it for the money.

  27. PM says:

    yeah, Jon, you know that guy. And that company.

    And I have a drawer full of Smokers Rights lighters that i can no longer carry on a plane.

    And the only ones of us who are not in it for the money are the ones who don’t need the money. (sorry, but the holiday season always brings out the cynic in me–probably from having to listen to Little Drummer Boy a couple of thousand times)

  28. Joe Loveland says:

    Bruce, I’ve heard you express great admiration for community organizing. I would submit many forms of community organizing are similar to letter drafting. All of those tactics are an attempt to make it as easy as possible for supporters to become more visible than they would be absent the organizing.

    Think about classic grassroots organizing tactics. Managing voter registration red tape for a supporter. Giving a supporter a bus ride to a rally, town hall meeting, or the polling place. Bringing a yard sign directly to homes, putting it up for them and taking it down for them. Drafting the preamble for a petition, going to the signers home, putting a pen in the signer’s hand, and delivering the petition to the authorities. These are all attempts to make it as easy as possible for supporters to be heard, just like throwing down a first draft of a letter.

    Is classic community organizing coercive puppeteering because the activism has to be stimulated? I don’t think so. After all, a supporter is free to refuse to register to vote, refuse to go to the town hall meeting, refuse to accept the yard sign, or refuse sign the petition. And the supporter is free to accept, change, or reject expressions of support like letters-to-the-editor. But organizing is all about making an expression of support easier, and thereby converting relatively passive supporters into more active supporters. Letter drafting fits in that category.

  29. Jon Austin says:

    Dennis –

    I am definitely in it for the money – if those lottery tickets ever come in I guarantee you won’t hear one of those “I plan to keep working…” things – but not to the exclusion of other values; you still have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror (or in the eyes of your kids, whichever is tougher).

    When I read one of the thoughtful, erudite posts of Dennis Lang I believe it reflects the views of Dennis Lang. I don’t much concern myself – except as a matter of professional curiosity – how your name came to be under the comments in terms of did you write each word, write a draft edited by your friend or look at something drafted wholly by someone else and say, “Yep, that about covers it” and do a copy-and-paste.

    To me, what’s important are the views you express and that you are taking ownership of them. Your opinions count for a lot on this forum and we hope you’ll continue to be a frequent visitor. I am less concerned with the road you take to get here.

    I would be concerned to find out that there was no Dennis Lang or that people were posting comments over your name without your knowledge or that you were somehow coerced into making comments (though I do wonder about some of the nice things you say about Benidt).

    Any of those situations would be beyond – way beyond – the line of acceptable advocacy and would fit my definition of deceitful. PR people caught in such situations are rightly criticized and punished with loss of reputation, job and career. So too would be a politician who insisted that, “I write every word of my speeches” and then gets out-ed by the media as a fraud (this is known as the Gary Hart gambit).

    As noted way up the page, I’d be fine if there was a trend toward greater transparency on bylines, but I’m not holding my breath. The “names” who grace the op-ed pages of America’s newspapers don’t want to give up the myth that they are effortlessly and instantly brilliant and articulate; the media doesn’t seem to actually care all that much (I’d invite Eric or others who review op-ed submissions to weigh in on how hard they press for details on who wrote what) and it is ultimately – I believe – not all that important. What is important is who owns the words and that issue is settled when you put your name on the dotted line.

    – Austin

  30. Jon Austin says:

    Apropos of this very interesting discussion, check out the article on Jon Faveau, Obama’s 27-year-old speechwriter, and his mindmeld with his boss.

    Where does speechwriting fall in the spectrum?

    – Austin

  31. bruce benidt says:

    Austin, I write most of the things Dennis says that reflect well on me. I send them to him and he cuts and pastes. I’ve got a reputation to build, dammit, and why leave it to chance?

    Mark Twain used to introduce himself on the speaker’s circuit — that way he could get in all the pertinent facts, he said.

    I have no doubt I’m naive and idealistic. And what you and Joe and Charlie and Mike and many others in the crowd have been posting here makes me think — which is the whole point, after all.

    Rather than the bombast of my screed back to you, Jon, I feel more solid going back to my original point — maybe each of us has our own line, and there really isn’t a single bright line that works for the whole business of “communicating with help.”

    Maybe it’s about preferences. My preference is for a politician who can write his or her own stuff. Gene McCarthy could. Obama can, and often does. I want to know when a person is capable of the kind of thought and analysis and broad view and deep knowledge and inspirational phrasing that Obama is capable of. It’s one of the ways I judge whether he’d make a good leader. If he’s always mouthing other people’s words, I want to know that. But that’s my preference.

    My preference is to be moved by a candidate who pulls people to him with his charisma and substance. I like finding out from reporters when a candidate has to “paper the house” as they used to say about plays and speeches when the promoter would give away tickets to fill empty seats so it looked like the play or speech could draw. I like hearing that one candidate had to bus in people from a couple counties over to fill the seats, while another candidate is having to set up chairs in overflow rooms. That’s my preference, to know what the real drawing power is, not just how good the advance team is. So then my preference is to not participate in papering the house.

    Joe, your comparison to community organizing is thought-provoking. If I participate in getting the word out that Obama is speaking, give people the time and place in emails, and offer rides and organize car pools, I’m going to feel OK about that. That’s like community organizing, going door to door with the petition. I guess I’m just more comfortable with putting the word out, making the case clearly and persuasively, and they letting people decide what to do. If I have to pull them out of their houses to get on the bus to come to the speech to fill the seats so TV doesn’t show a low turnout, I’m just not going to be comfortable with that. So I can choose not to participate. Doesn’t mean I’m right and Jon’s wrong if he’s busy writing letters to the editor or toasts or ghosting books of the Apocrypha.

    (BTW, the brother of a dear friend of mine had a little business writing toasts — I hope he weighs in here. It’s such a cool and rather bizarre idea.)

    Last night I helped prep a client for a cable news interview that was aired live this morning. She was communicating, with my help. I asked her what the most important things she wanted to say were, then helped her practice saying them in response to questions. They were her ideas, using messages shaped with the help of the company’s excellent PR person, and her delivery. I helped edit, guide, shape — bring out the clearest message delivered with the oomph of her own personality. That’s communicating with help. To Eric’s point, people who don’t work for a big company don’t get my rather expensive help in getting their points across. So the public discussion isn’t fair, in that sense. So is what I did with my client comparable to the letter to the editor ploy I’m objecting to? I don’t think so. I didn’t dream up the points myself and then go find someone to say them. But right or wrong? I guess it’s just my preference to do it my way.

    I started this first post to see what people think about all this, where their lines are. And man, what a great discussion has ensued.

    Austin, if I can sit next to you, I’ll go on almost any journey, including to the caverns of Old Scratch. I’m going to be there anyway — the company will be better, as Sam Clemens said.

    Finally, my favorite line from a speechwriter. Ted Sorensen has a new (recent by now) book out called “Counselor,” about his days with John Kennedy. Sorensen wrote JFK’s speeches (some say he wrote JFK’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “Profiles in Courage”) and is widely thought to have written some of the greatest lines in JFK’s inaugural address.

    Asked in interviews on his book tour if he wrote the signature line, “Ask not what your country can to for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Sorensen responded — “Ask not.”

    And, as long as we’re doing speechwriting tutorials here, take a look at the ghostwriter and the speaker’s edits on a little speech given in 1861 — Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

    Lincoln got suggestions from many people on what he should say as he took office with the Union breaking apart. His secretary of state, William Seward, his chief rival for the nomination, wrote and gave Lincoln this as a suggestion for the close of the speech:

    “I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”

    So Lincoln took this draft, this work of Austin or Loveland, and put his own music in it and his own soul. Listen to this, as Lincoln rewrote it and spoke it from the steps of the unfinished Capitol to a nation on the brink:

    “I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

    Mystic chords and better angels — the most memorable parts of one of history’s most powerful speeches — were they Seward’s, or Lincoln’s? Austin’s, or his client’s? Should Seward have had a double byline on the inaugural? Ask not.

    As written by Seward, in turgid stumbling language, would those words have been immortal? No. They became so when Lincoln took them in his hands and made them flow, turned them loose to soar.

    The draft of that paragraph was Seward’s. The speech was Lincoln’s.

  32. Joe Loveland says:

    Bruce, you say: “If I have to pull them out of their houses to get on the bus to come to the speech to fill the seats so TV doesn’t show a low turnout, I’m just not going to be comfortable with that. ”

    First, if your assumption has been that those seats fill spontaneously, there are a lot of phone bankers, door knockers, press release writers, and bus drivers who could let you in on one of the worst kept secrets of organizing.

    Is your assumption that you have to pull letter writers out of their seats to edit, sign and send the letter? If so, that’s never been my observation. While writing is intensely personal and enjoyable to you and me, there is a big wide galaxy of people out there who don’t have love, confidence and/or time for writing. Non-writers are happy to have an activist help get the ball rolling with that form of speaking out. And this writer is happy to have people help me with forms of speaking out that I don’t enjoy, such as building yard signs, printing my own bumper stickers or going door-to-door. Those people aren’t putting words in my mouth, because I’m free to refuse any of their non-coercive offers to amplify my voice. Same with the letter drafter.

  33. Dennis Lang says:

    I remember a character in “Animal Farm”–maybe a horse–who, everytime he listened to a divergent political argument, found himself agreeing with it. Sadly, that’s too often me. Very exciting conversation on this topic (especially when the Crowd staff is wrestling with each other). Raises lots of questions. Nice work!

    PS: Prof. A–That is the first time in recorded history my name has ever appeared in the same sentence with “thoughtful” and “erudite”. I’m thinking , hey, not bad. Then I recalled your pathological, obsessive attachment to those “blue” things shared with us so “transparently” some months ago. I’m wondering if there still might be some muddled mental processing going on. But thanks, sounded cool.

  34. Hornseth says:

    Benidt — The Seward/Lincoln example is impressive, but it’s also an anomoly. Lincoln’s language isn’t great simply because it’s “his.” It’s also because Lincoln was a fine, lyrical writer with an obvious knack for how words sound aloud. Most people don’t possess that knack today, and I’m guessing that was true then, too.

    What if it was James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson fiddling with Seward”s words to make them “theirs?” I don’t imagine the result would have been soaring simply beacuse of all the “theirness.”

    I can commission someone to write a song for me. From there I can make it “mine” all I want — but I’m still going to clear the room if I sing it.

  35. Ellen Mrja says:

    As an academic, I’d accuse Lincoln of plagiarism. I copied Seward’s paragraph that Benidt quoted above, entered it into http://www.plagiarismchecker.com/ and it of course called up Lincoln’s address. And the imagery was Seward’s.

    Try it yourself. You’ll see in bold all of the words and phrases that Lincoln borrowed. He took them then and made them sing.

    By the way, Lincoln was — in my opinion — our greatest president and a brilliant writer. But I’m just saying…

  36. Jon Austin says:

    If Lincoln were president today:

    Drudge Report Exclusive: Lincoln Lifts Inaugural From Seward; Pelosi Calls Plagiarism “Deeply Troubling”
    100-Day Agenda in Peril

    But, who am I kidding? Lincoln would have never made it out of the primary season in today’s visually dominated world. He was homely and his voice was high and somewhat shrill according to many contemporary accounts. As Mr. Sorensen notes in a very excellent article in last month’s Smithsonian, the power of his speeches did not come from his delivery.

    His idea of a short speech – the Gettysburg Address notwithstanding – was keeping it under an hour and he often gave stemwinders of 2-3 hours (though his speeches got notably shorter as he served in office). The first inaugural speech we’re talking about here went on and on and on.

    Nope, he wouldn’t have gotten a lot of air time from networks (even C-SPAN would be tempted to cut away) and not a lot of CPA-afflicted voters would hang around for “content” of that length and density. His speeches would have to be posted to YouTube in segments. Twitter? No chance.

    In today’s environment, Lincoln would have gotten 3 percent in Iowa, dropped out after New Hampshire and retired from the Senate to become a lobbyist. He would have done Viagra commercials and been a hit on Letterman.

    – Austin

    PS – Ellen – You’re in good company among Lincoln admirers; Sorensen rates Lincoln our best Presidential writer.

  37. Ellen Mrja says:

    A graceful article, Ausin.

    Scholars have pondered how a man of such humble beginnings, who was largely self-taught, could have developed the genius Lincoln did so early on.

    Robert Bray is a Lincoln scholar who has worked faithfully to produce an annotated bibliography of works we know Lincoln read and those Bray suspects Lincoln read. It’s a staggering education just to read the list. Try this: http://tinyurl.com/48vve7

  38. The image of Lincoln doing Viagra commercials has just sent this blog over the edge into the Twilight Zone.

    Loveland and Austin, you haven’t convinced me yet on this letter-writing thing, but you’ve made me less sure of my position. I’m now with Lang in Orwell’s stable. It’s so much more fun to see things in stark black and white.

    I have a feeling I should never look behind the curtain in politics. I had a little taste of advance work when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Minnesota back in 1990. A team of political advance people dropped out of the sky to put together the media operation for the three thousand reporters from all over the world, to handle logistics, to make sure the events worked, probably to taste the tacos at Pepitos. I was loaned from Shandwick to the press operation, and I got to see these political operatives at work, and, more important, got to drink with them and hear some of their stories. They are an itinerant tribe that moves from campaign to campaign, making things work, creating events, creating impressions. It was cool to be around them, and I felt a tug when the circus left town and they all split to their next campaigns and I was left in plain old Minneapolis. But I didn’t what their jobs. None of them was Donald Segretti, but I got the feeling that if I got to know what they did too closely I’d become more cynical than I am. I want to think that the whole Obama phenomenon came about because an extraordinary person came along at just the time we needed someone whose image was a true reflection of his character, not something someone created. Don’t disillusion me.

    Early on, I signed an electronic petition calling on Obama to run for president. I suppose that petition and the website was put together by a political operative and didn’t just spring forth from some civic-minded optimist. Joe, you put your finger on the crux of this when you reflected what I said about pulling people onto the buses. Where’s the line between offering the bus, encouraging interested people to get on, having volunteers go door to door to plead with people to get on…

    I guess I only want to offer the bus, and leave it up to the candidate to inspire people to want to get on the bus.

    Ellen, it’s not plagiarism when Seward handed his suggestion to Lincoln. JFK didn’t plagiarize Sorensen. But what a great website you’ve told us about. Do you use it if you suspect one of your students of suddenly becoming a much more fluid writer?

  39. Dennis Lang says:

    I have to finish shovelling–the minus thirty-six degrees windchill adding to the exhilaration, but something still bugs me about this. If we were to apply the logic proposed here by some (Austin), does it follow that those retired generals (“Obliterating the Lines…”), because they were expressing a viewpoint likely totally consistent with their prevailing belief advocating aggression and affirming triumph in Iraq, weren’t being ethically slippery when, unknown to their audience that assumed unbiased expertise, they were coached by the Pentagon?

  40. The issue with the generals — at least as I intended to examine in my posts — is not whether they actually believe what they are talking about on TV. The issue is that neither the generals nor their host media outlets disclosed any trace of the potential for conflict of interest. So, yes, there’s a related discussion to have (I’d say, as long as they believe what they’re saying, a little push does little, if any, harm), but there’s more to “the generals” story than that.

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