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Another Thought on Huffington-Clooney Fracas

The fists haven’t stopped flying over the Huffington Post’s bad move in reprinting George Clooney’s statements in other venues as blog postings, and Arianna Huffington’s mea culpa is not placating the critics. The more I learn about what happened, the more I agree that this was an egregiously bad move on her part.

It all raises a question about a practice that is utterly routine in traditional journalism: the ghost-written op-ed piece. I recognize that although there are some similarities (Clooney’s representatives were at least partly complicit in the words’ republication), the situations are not the same — but I don’t consider it especially ethical of publications and the “writers” of these op-ed pieces to be passing off their words as authentic, either.

Such essays, usually under the bylines of politicians or celebrities, amount to deception. They are written by staffers or others, not by the big names themselves.

I hope that the newspapers now carving Huffington up for her transgression will take a long look at their own shops. Because the ghost-written op-ed piece is somewhat fraudulent, too.

7 Comments on “Another Thought on Huffington-Clooney Fracas”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 22nd, 2006 at 8:01 pm

    Ah, but “blogging” makes a special claim to being authentic – while at the same time, it’s *so* easy to fake the sincerity.

    The point of this case is that it’s a very public and loud demonstration of how that pseudo-authenticity is being manufactured. Because the claim is that the “More Voice For The Voiceful” site supposedly isn’t like the ghost-written op-ed pieces, but it was.

    The asymmetry is that the people who remain the audience are told it’s different this time – and it’s not.

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 22nd, 2006 at 11:30 pm

    On balance I think it is different this time, to the extent that blogs have personal voice. Hardly any newspaper writing, except for columns, remotely fits that category.

  3. #3 badgercourage
    on Mar 23rd, 2006 at 8:14 am

    How far do you want to take the dubious analogy between op-ed pieces and blogs? Op-ed pieces are often used as proxies for speeches. Very few speeches by politicians are written by the supposed authors (some senior politicians seem capable of rational thought let alone coherent speech!). Like speeches, many op-ed pieces (and I guess some blogs) are therefore the work of many uncredited inputs.

    However, we’re not dimbos. When we see an article in a serious newspaper by (say) Condi Rice or Jack Straw we don’t expect them to have written the detailed words themselves. But we do expect them to have read and cleared the content, agree with it and be held to account for what’s being written under their byline if they are wrong or defamatory.

  4. #4 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 23rd, 2006 at 8:34 am

    Actually, the fact that you automatically disbelieve the authorship of op-ed pieces by famous people points up what is wrong with the system.

  5. #5 Mark Glaser
    on Mar 23rd, 2006 at 10:51 am

    I had serious misgivings about this type of situation cropping up on Huffington Post before it even launched. With all the big names and their handlers, how could they NOT submit stuff that they hadn’t actually written? But Arianna was in denial when I interviewed her back then for OJR:

    Key passage:

    OJR: Will there be ghost writers or assistants who might write for some of the group bloggers?

    Arianna Huffington: That will never happen. They will never bother to do that, it’s not of any interest to them. The majority of the people are people who are on e-mail a lot, they IM their friends. What we’re asking them to do is basically tell us the thoughts they’re already having, the conversations they’re already having, the takes they’re already having.

    Now some of them who don’t use a computer like Arthur Schlesinger might fax it. I personally don’t have a problem with that. I’d rather have Arthur Schlesinger online, his own voice, his own thoughts, than say, ‘You know what, you have to learn how to use our software, we can’t have you on.’ I’m sure there are some purists who think that, no, you should actually use the blogging software, you should use Movable Type. But I don’t have a problem with Arthur Schlesinger faxing me his thoughts, or someone calling from his cell phone and dictating something, but it has to be his thoughts — that has to be unequivocal.

    Unequivocal, huh?

  6. #6 badgercourage
    on Mar 23rd, 2006 at 11:46 am


    I agree with you in principle – no-one disputes this system has faults – but let’s not get unrealistic here.

    I was merely pointing to a truth that “authorship” is not a black-and-white issue. Painters and photographers have assistants, authors have researchers, journalists have trainees, politicians have interns, da, da, da. While in an ideal world they should all get credit (and I’ve been on both sides of this argument in the past) power and prestige relationships plus the shorthand that is inevitable in politics and journalism work against this.

    A think-piece written and signed by an unknown researcher at the request of a major politico would be unlikely to get published. But put it out under the name of the Minister or Secretary of State and hey, presto!

    By all means let’s campaign for joint authorship or subsidiary credit or whatever, but there will allways be a market for ghost-written content, be it newspapers or books or blogs.

  7. #7 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 23rd, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    There’s a relatively easy way to handle it: a double byline. If Jane Staffer has written her boss’ op-ed, the byline should include both of them. Of course, this would imply that important people don’t write their own stuff, and they can’t have that…