By Ruth Marcus
I’m with Sarah Palin on this one.
Her new neighbor, it turns out, is author Joe McGinniss. Coincidence? I think not. McGinniss wrote an unflattering profile of Palin for Portfolio magazine last year, and he’s now writing a book about the former Alaska governor. So he’s moved in next door.
Apparently, this is really next door. As Palin posted on her Facebook page alongside a picture of McGinniss, “Here he is—about 15 feet away on the neighbor’s rented deck overlooking my children’s play area and my kitchen window. ... Wonder what kind of material he’ll gather while overlooking Piper’s bedroom, my little garden, and the family’s swimming hole?”
Palin’s intimations of pedophiliac voyeurism are characteristically aggrieved—said “swimming hole” is a public lake, after all—but I’d feel pretty aggrieved in these circumstances as well.
McGinniss’ choice of venue is outrageously, unnecessarily intrusive. There is—there used to be and should be, anyway—a difference between reporting and stalking, serious journalists and paparazzi. Not that I’d want to make my living chasing celebrities, but the paparazzi, at least, have an excuse: They have to stick their cameras in people’s faces to do their jobs. McGinniss and Marcus don’t. People, politicians included, deserve a zone of privacy, literal as well as metaphysical.
Slate’s Jack Shafer says he has “no problems, ethically or morally, with him [McGinniss] getting as close to his subject as possible,” and puts McGinniss’ behavior within a “long journalistic tradition of wearing sources and subjects down until they surrender.” His examples include “knocking on the door of a grieving family to ask them, ‘How do you feel?’ ” and “frequenting a subject’s favorite bar, place of worship, and subway stop until he cracks.”
I’ve had to do that knocking—not easy—but I was taught not to besiege grieving families. If that’s changed, too bad on us, but there are remedies against such harassment. Going to a public place in pursuit of a source is different from essentially spying on the source in her private domain.
This was, it turns out, something of a grudge rental. McGinniss’ son wrote in an e-mail obtained by Politico’s Ben Smith that the owner “sought out the author because the Palins had crossed her (owed her money for renovations she had done at their request and never paid her for).”
As McGinniss Jr. explained, “If you were writing a biography of Tiger Woods and had the chance to move in with him, or his pool house, or rent next door or down the street from him—it would be journalistic malpractice not to.” Yes, if Tiger invited you to move in, or rent the pool house, you’d be crazy not to. But positioning yourself so you can watch his every move, day in and day out, for five months?
“People who write about politics, campaigns, they travel with the candidates, stay in the same motels, ride the bus, eat breakfast, hang out any and everywhere they can to get access,” the e-mail added. “We want to read the work of someone who is as close to their subject as possible. That’s called reporting.” But there is a private sphere even on a political campaign. Reporters don’t camp out in the hotel room next to the candidate and put their ears to the wall.
In a statement, McGinniss’ publisher promised that the author “will be highly respectful of his subject’s privacy as he investigates her public activities.” Really? So respectful of her privacy that he invaded it? Plow through all the papers, interview all the sources you want. But seizing the opportunity to live next door is creepy.
The Yiddish word mensch refers to a decent person. I’ve always believed that it is possible to practice good, hard-hitting journalism and behave like a mensch. I’ll wait for the book to judge McGinniss’ journalism. It’s not too early, though, to conclude that he is no mensch.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
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