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July 10, 2005

The Cardinal's All Growed Up

I know a guy who is ghostwriting the autobiography of a female stripper. The book will go out under her name, and he's not getting paid as much for it as he should, but fair enough; no one really expects that she wrote the book herself, and no one who buys it really cares. It's the sort of thing, dishonesty-wise, that's about on par with lying to a cop when pulled over for speeding. You know you were going double the speed limit, he knows it, but you might still try and pull a, "Was I, officer? I was a bit distracted."

But then that doesn't really fly in American newspaper journalism today.

It's routine to see things like:

Richard W. Stevenson reported from Copenhagen for this article and Anne E. Kornblut from Washington. Carl Hulse contributed reporting from Washington.

in a random New York Times story. Jayson Blair aside, Rick Bragg got fired for failing to do that sort of thing, and the Times pales in comparison to Time, which will fill up half a column with attributions. It has gone well past the point of exaggeration—after all, the real point of a newspaper story is the substance therein; readers don't really care who wrote it, as long as it's true. This sort of fastidiousness is more a matter of keeping a newsroom tally than it is of substance.

Not so with opinion pieces. No one really gives a fuck if I, or some crazy guy in Tulsa, say that evolution is a load of crap. But it matters when a Roman Catholic Cardinal says so: Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution—New York Times. The Times will write a whole news story about it. Makes sense.

But the news story is based on a Times Op-Ed. Again, makes sense—the New York Times Op-Ed page is pretty prestigious; bastion of our public discourse, and all that. It's thus sad the the Times news article has to take testimony on who wrote the piece:

"Mr. Ryland said the cardinal was well versed on these issues and had written the essay on his own."

Given the fastidiousness the Times and its peers have concerning who added a sentence to a news story, one would expect the same high standards to apply to the opinion pieces published on their pages. No one has to reassure me that "Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein" wrote the news story about the Cardinal's beliefs; their byline is sufficient. But it's rather screwed up when a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic church is more on the stripper-end of the scale than the journalist-end.

That's not to say Cardinal Schönborn didn't write the piece in question. His friend says he did, and I'm happy to take the statement at face value. But then, I do have another friend who has written articles that appeared under Nelson Mandela's name. Why is this a problem? Well, if we want world leaders to be men of substance (which I think is a safe assumption), and not figureheads, they must be men (and women, naturally) who are capable of writing a coherent essay, and honest enough not to claim they'd written something they haven't. Cardinal Schönborn, whatever one might think of his opinions, may well be such a person. But the system is broken to the point where validation by America's newspaper of record conveys exactly zero confidence that this is so.

The other reason that we should care is the ghostwritten writing generally sucks. My friend who is writing the stripper's autobiography is doing it for the money, and is the first to admit that it won't be a riveting read. Try A Charge to Keep, George Bush's campaign manifesto, or Call to Service, John Kerry's. Kerry writes "I was brought up to care about the big issues and think for myself, not hire others to do my thinking for me." Maybe he does do his own thinking, but how are we supposed to know if his speeches are written for him, and so are his books? If we judge by the books, his thinking is cliché-ridden and tiresome. Ditto Bush; fears are confirmed, sermons inspiring, and losses agonizing.

To continue the stream of clichés—it is a free country. No one can stop someone else from publishing a book under his name but written by a third party. But it shouldn't be socially acceptable for our leaders to do so as a matter of habit. And the standard could be set by the country's leading newspapers, who have let the paranoia of accountability become hyperbolic in the newsroom, while hypocrisy has become a matter of course in their opinion pages.

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