Topic: Professions & Institutions

Ghostwriting Ethics

Best-selling author Ralph Schoenstein recently died at 73. You may have an old copy of his most popular book, in fact. But you wouldn’t know that, because his name isn’t on its cover. The book is entitled “Fatherhood,” and the man who took credit for it, went on TV to talk about it, received the royalties from its sales and listed it on his professional resume, was comedian and actor Bill Cosby. Why? There are many reasons, but there are two main ones. The first one is that nobody would have bought a book by Ralph Schoenstein containing his wry and wise comments on fatherhood, because few people knew who he was. The second is that Bill Cosby didn’t have the time, skill and quite possibly even the desire to write a book. But he was quite grateful for the resulting royalties and prestige.

The practice of ghostwriting has always raised ethical questions, but Cosby’s use of one is especially provocative. After all, Cosby is a social critic and presents himself as an educator, duly qualified by a masters degree in education from Temple and a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. He presumably knows that increased cheating by students is a significant education and social problem; he also loudly proclaims the importance of role models in teaching values to the young. So the Scoreboard would pose this question for Dr. Cosby:

What is the ethical distinction between paying someone to write your book and paying someone to write your term paper?

Never mind, Bill, we have the answer.

There is none. None at all. There are practical differences. Putting your name on a paper that has been written by someone else is forbidden and will get you punished at every school, college and university in the country, including Temple and UMass (where Cosby’s thesis was entitled, “The Integration of Visual Media Via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Into the Elementary Schools Culminating as a Teacher Aid to Achieve Increased Learning.”) Doing the same with a published book has no negative consequences at all, as long as nobody finds out until most of the book’s copies have been sold.

Yet it is impossible to argue convincingly that the purpose of ghostwriters is not to deceive the book-buying public in order to take their money. People only bought “Fatherhood” because Cosby had just finished playing wise father-role model Clint Huxtable on his hit TV show and they believed that Cosby’s observations would be reliably interesting and funny. They had no similar trust in the observations of Ralph Schoenstein (though Schoenstein’s pearls of wisdom were sufficiently astute to make him a regular contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered”), and besides, they assumed that all the letters Cosby routinely lists after his name means that Cosby actually could write a book. How many Hillary Clinton supporters would have bought her “It Takes a Village” if its true writer, Barbara Feinman, was listed as the author? How many “Trekkies” would have shelled out cash to read William Shatner’s science-fiction books if his ghostwriter’s name rather than his was on the cover? We know the answer, and so did Clinton, Shatner and their publishers, not to mention their ghostwriters, all of whom profited from a lie.

For it is a lie. Actually, it’s several lies: 1) “I wrote this book…” 2) “on my own…” 3) “and it represents my unique ideas and personal expression of them…” 4) “so if you like, respect or are interested in me, you should enjoy my book.”

And one more: 5) “Now you know that I can write a book. You should be impressed.”

When celebrity books are authored by individuals who no rational reader would ever believe could actually write a book by themselves, the ghostwriter comes out of the shadows, and the deception is substantially abandoned. Jock memoirs are almost always written “with” a known sports journalist, or “as told to” one. Who would want to try to read a book actually written by Pete Rose or Mike Tyson? So in the cases of these two ethically challenged athletes as well as many others, honesty about authorship is actually profitable.

Dr. Cosby can still learn something about ethics from Pete and Iron Mike. The obvious ethical practice for Cosby and Hillary and Captain Kirk is to list the name of their hired writer as co-author. But their egos apparently won’t permit that, and thus they take full credit and prestige for work that is not their own.

The “literary services firm” Schmidt & Kaye has an amusing and revealing defense of ghostwriting on their website:

…In truth there is nothing unethical about having someone else write your book for you. Ghostwriting may be “deceptive” on some level, but then, so is wearing makeup, or keeping a neat lawn and having a nice paint job on the exterior of your house when the inside looks like the aftermath of Pompeii. For that matter, it’s also “deceptive” for an actor to use a stunt double or a body double. But is it unethical? Of course not. Think of it this way: by hiring a ghostwriter, you are simply putting the best “face” on your ideas. Or, if you prefer, you’re hiring a “stunt writer.” It’s done all the time, by famous folks and ordinary Joes alike.

Yes, that’s really the best they could come up with.

Countering this argument is the ethics analysis equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, but for the record:

“Wearing make-up” is generally not “deceptive.” Wearing make-up that disguises your true identity so you can be hired for a job that you are not qualified to do, however, is deceptive…and that’s a lot closer to what is going on with ghostwritten books. Making the outside of your house look good when the inside is a wreck isn’t “deceptive” either. But convincing someone to purchase your house by representing that the outside accurately reflects conditions on the inside is fraud…and that’s what is happening with ghostwritten books. (The use of stunt doubles in movies is no analogy at all: people know that movies are about illusion and special effects, that the actors are not really who they pretend to be and aren’t making up their own lines as they go along. Stunt doubles only become unethical if an actor goes on TV and lies about doing his or her own stunts.*) It is significant that the only serious “defense” of the practice of ghostwriting that a company whose business is ghostwriting can muster is “It’s done all the time”—the Golden Rationalization, the most common, most popular, oldest invalid excuse for unethical conduct there is.

And exactly the same excuse used by student plagiarists every day.

* It’s a bit off topic, but this reminds me of a funny story about Harry Houdini. Houdini started a movie company in the 1920s, and starred himself in a series of action films. Houdini did his own stunts exactly as they appeared on screen, including extricating himself from various diabolical restraints in which the camera recorded every second of Houdini’s escape. In one rescue sequence, he actually lept from wing to wing of two airplanes that were really flying 50 feet above the ground. Houdini’s movies bombed, in part because other actors (who, unlike Houdini, could also act) appeared to doing exactly the same things on the screen, but through the use of editing, doubles and special effects. Houdini never could comprehend why films of real feats of strength and courage weren’t inherently more exciting in telling a story than faked illusions. And he was a magician!

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