By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Ghostbusting the Globe’s op-ed page

ghostbusters picI like it when politicians have direct, unfiltered access to the public. The media have plenty of opportunities to posit themselves between candidates and voters. If a pol lies, twists or omits relevant facts and there’s no one from the Fourth Estate to call him or her on it, well, so be it. There will always be another opportunity.

That said, I don’t think the Boston Globe did enough to make sure that the four Democratic candidates for U.S. senator actually wrote their own op-eds in Sunday’s paper. If words are appearing under the bylines of (in fair-and-balanced alphabetical order) Mike Capuano, Martha Coakley, Alan Khazei and Steve Pagliuca, I’d like some assurance that they were written by the candidates, not those of some paid spinner.

But when I asked editorial-page editor Peter Canellos what precautions the Globe had taken, he replied by e-mail that he had checked with op-ed editor Marjorie Pritchard and, essentially, none had been taken. “I spoke to Marjorie, and the answer is that we simply requested that they write pieces for the op-ed page,” Canellos told me. “There were no further restrictions imposed on them.”

Granted, short of some sort of forensic investigation, it would be impossible for a newspaper to make sure candidate op-eds were actually written by the candidates. But I think the candidates should have been asked directly to write their own statements, with no assistance from staffers other than editing. That way, they’d have been put on notice that if they didn’t, then they were cheating.

I realize that I’m holding a candidate’s written words to a higher standard than I am spoken words. But the role of speechwriters is well-established, and the very fact that a candidate has to speak the words changes the equation. A ghostwritten op-ed, in contrast, might never even be seen by the candidate — we simply have no way of knowing.

Besides, when a newspaper such as the Globe solicits op-eds, it is taking responsibility for what it publishes in a way that’s entirely different from running a story about a candidate’s speech.

It’s time to banish the ghosts from the op-ed page. Who you gonna call?

An additional thought: Several of the commenters make the point that ghostwritten op-eds are a long-established practice throughout the newspaper business. So let me clarify. Yes, I know that. Not reading obviously ghostwritten op-eds is an equally established practice. It’s time for a change, don’t you think?

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  1. lkcape

    Kudos, Dan, for addressing this topic.

    The requirement that the individual actually write the piece should extend to our elected officials, too.

    We do not elect the staffs to office…we should not hear their voices in the stead of the official’s.

    Spin and image has become the substitute for substance.

    The news media has been a willing partner in the foggery.

  2. bostonmediawatch

    C’mon, admit it, you are just trying to catch Palin dangling a participle…

  3. Art Kane

    Can’t say I agree, Dan. Yes, of course, it’s great when a politician can write persuasively, but how many have that talent. We shouldn’t be pitting writing skill against writing skill when it’s the IDEAS that are important. If a candidate puts his/her name to something, it presumably reflects his/her actual view of the matter and I’m okay with that, especially since everyone is (or should be)well aware that it’s likely to have been ghostwritten; that having been common practice since time immemorial.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Art: Not to read a meaning into your words that may not be there, but you seem to be saying that it’s OK because it’s the way we’ve always done it. To which I respond: It’s not working.

  4. Local Editor

    Call me cynical, but whenever I see an op-ed credited to a politician, I assume it’s ghost-written.

  5. MarkB

    Come on now. Next you’ll be telling us you think Jack Kennedy really wrote Profiles in Courage.

  6. JeffC

    Thomas Payne is laughing his ass off.

  7. Bob Gardner

    Dan, you sound like the parson who read Gulliver’s Travels and announced that he didn’t believe half of it.
    The op-ed page is full signed articles written by staff people for elected officials. Or columns consisting almost entirely of some interest group’s talking points. The Globe’s editors have their hands full just keeping their own columnists from copying things off the internet. Don’t make things any tougher for them.

  8. Steve Stein

    I think the candidates should have been asked directly to write their own statements, with no assistance from staffers other than editing.

    I agree. But that begs the question – is this sort of requirement put on every Op-Ed a politician writes, or would this be a new requirement?

    • Dan Kennedy

      Steve: Oh, new requirement. Absolutely. It’s time.

  9. Michael Pahre

    Dan, I disagree a bit from you on this one: I think that the Globe should have requested that any co-authors be identified by name in each op-ed, not that co-authors be banned altogether.

    I have seen the suggestion made in some “how to write an effective op-ed” articles that you should consider enlisting a prominent person to be co-author, if that person agrees with you (of course) and you are not so well known. The op-ed pages regularly have author pairs where it’s pretty obvious who wrote it and who only discussed it over the phone and made a few comments on the text. Nothing wrong there. A candidate’s ghost-written op-ed is the flip side of this analogy.

    Everyone knows that the campaigns will carefully scrutinize the text of a Globe op-ed because it is such a large stage — regardless of who writes the first draft. No U.S. Senator writes all of his own legislation text, press releases, letters to constituents, speeches, etc., so it is unreasonable to expect them to go-it-alone in an op-ed (even with your editing exception).

    When you vote for someone, you’re putting his/her whole team into public service. So it’s reasonable to assess their group’s work product as a whole.

    But I *do* object to legislators using lobbyist text verbatim in their remarks for the Congressional record…

    • Dan Kennedy

      Michael: All I’m asking for is the truth. If a candidate wants to collaborate with an aide, that’s fine, as long as both bylines are included.

  10. lkcape

    “…When you vote for someone, you’re putting his/her whole team into public service. So it’s reasonable to assess their group’s work product as a whole….”

    Isn’t it informative to know the make up of the “team” before the election?

    I would think that it would lead to a more informed electorate, which is–or should be–an objective of the news media.

    Were an elected official be required to identify his ghost writers, we may just find that the elected official has little to do with what comes out in his name.

    As for lobbyists being the source for a legislator’s recorded remarks?

    I think it offensive that a lobbyist being is the source for a legislator’s remarks, recorded or otherwise. And it is important for the news media to point out such instances…no matter what the political party of the legislator might be.

  11. GuyfromNH

    Dan, absolutely… and boy, when I saw the Op-Ed page with those four worthies taking up all the space, I didn’t bother to read… knowing it was staff-written, vetted and so forth…

    Which brings us to another point… my God, the Globe op-ed page must be the dullest in the country, with all these guest pieces about the herring crisis or dental care in the Third World or Icelandic fishing rights… *yawn*

  12. Art Kane

    Dan: It’s a fine point, but I didn’t mean to say that “it’s okay because… we’ve always done it”, but, rather, that such ghostwriting is not a violation of trust or ethics because everybody knows that everybody does it; thus, it’s become commonly accepted political behavior requiring no disclaimer. It may not be “right”, but it’s not — in my opinion –deceptive or unethical.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Art: Don’t have any proof, but I don’t think civilians are universally aware that candidate op-eds are ghostwritten — certainly not to the extent that they know politicians have speechwriters.

      GuyfromNH: If Canellos had told me that the candidates had at least been asked to do their own writing, I’d have gone back and read them. I didn’t read them yesterday, and I won’t now.

  13. papillon

    come on. so you want to put speechwriters out of work? what’s wrong with you? what matters is the ideas and how well the politician can carry them out. do you really want obama to spend even more time than he already does crafting speeches? there’s been plenty of powerful leaders who weren’t too good with the written word. like, uh, genghis khan. and, um, tutankhamen?

  14. LFNeilson

    I’d like to see members of Congress required to (a) shop for their own health insurance and (b) do their own tax returns. We’d see some changes instantaneously.

  15. One Ghostwriter

    The vast majority of op-eds (by politicians, by doctors, by CEOs of companies, by non-profit leaders, etc) are ghost-written. (I know because I’ve written many of them.)

    Writing a decent op-ed (which includes a catchy opening and a coherent set of points) is an art, and not a skill that everyone has. Certainly, it’s a skill I’ve spent time developing.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t elect my politicians (or respect doctors, CEOs, etc) because of their writing skills. The role of the op-ed writer is the same as the role of the speechwriter. The public holds a candidate to what they say (even if they didn’t write it) in both cases.

    At the end of the day, it’s the “author”‘s name on the line. It’s their ideas, or at the very least ideas they are willing to put their stamp of approval on.

    No one cares what me, ghostwriter, thinks about health care or any other topic. (As much as it might be nice if they did!) But they do care what Capuano, Coakley etc think. And as long as the candidate agrees 100% with the words being submitted in their name, it seems fine by me.

    (And besides, I’d really rather they spend their time out meeting voters/constituents than sitting at the desk for a few hours pounding out an op-ed.)

    It would be silly for my name to be listed along side the person I write the op-ed for. Although it’s not true in my case, for others they may not even AGREE with what they’re paid to write. Their job is to put into words the thoughts that are in their bosses heads…that’s all.

    And I can’t fathom the campaign that would submit an op-ed to any paper, much less the Globe, without it being thoroughly reviewed by the candidate. At the end of the day, it’s their name, reputation, and political future at stake.

    • Dan Kennedy

      I’d really rather they spend their time out meeting voters/constituents than sitting at the desk for a few hours pounding out an op-ed.

      I’d suggest that explaining their thoughts in writing to a wide audience is considerably more important than hitting another couple of campaign events.

  16. mike_b1

    Wow, the so-called conservatives are actually arguing for strenuously more rules?

    Cold day in hell today.

  17. lkcape

    Mr B_1: You, of all people, should not go stereotyping others!

  18. Ghost writing is as well established as speech writing, Dan. As long as the ideas belong to the candidates and the pieces are vetted and approved by them (so that they have to live by the contents) then I don’t really have a problem with it.

    • Dan Kennedy

      George: You know what else is well-established? Not reading any of those ghostwritten op-eds. I know the practice is well-established. I’m calling for an end to it.

  19. mike_b1

    lkcape, I can’t imagine why you’d say that, but I’m sure there’s an insult or race-baiting comment coming next.

  20. Bob Gardner

    How about if the politician “improves” his staff-written piece. And how about if instead of disclosing on the op-ed page who really wrote the column, he just tells his friends. You wouldn’t want to punish someone for doing that, would you?

  21. lkcape

    B_1: We’ll let the reader decide who brings race to the table.

    That’s fair, isn’t it?

  22. I don’t agree with that Dan. I’ve worked in the PR industry for more than 10 years and I’ve never heard of a CEO that wasn’t involved in or didn’t read his own byline. Where are you getting the idea that this is a common practice?

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