Joe McGinniss: Author who was lauded for ‘The Selling of the President 1968’ but was later attacked for his journalistic ethics


When he was 26, Joe McGinniss wrote The Selling of the President 1968, a landmark study of the uses of advertising in presidential campaigns. It stayed on the US bestseller lists for seven months, making McGinniss the youngest living author, up to that point, to have a No 1 non-fiction bestseller.

At 40 he published Fatal Vision, a page-turning tale about Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army doctor who continued to maintain his innocence long after he was convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters. It sold millions of copies, was made into an NBC miniseries and was hailed as a true-crime classic. But in later years, the book was at the centre of an impassioned debate about journalistic ethics, which came to overshadow McGinniss’s early reputation as one of the leading non-fiction authors of his generation.

McGinniss was still writing until shortly before his death, chronicling his struggle with cancer in Facebook updates and in an unfinished book, but in many ways he became better known for what people said about him than for what he actually put on the page. In 1968, McGinniss overheard an advertising executive say that his company had acquired the “Humphrey account.” Until that moment, McGinniss had not realised that presidential campaigns hired teams of advertisers to sell their candidates like a brand of soap.

When handlers of the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey turned down McGinniss’s request to go behind the scenes, he approached the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Nixon’s people agreed to let him into the inner sanctum. “This is the beginning of a whole new concept,” said one of Nixon’s leading imagemakers, Roger Ailes, who later became head of Fox News. “This is the way [presidents] will be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers.”

The Selling of the President 1968 became a runaway bestseller and was made into a Broadway play. The book irreverently pulled back the curtain on political marketing and heralded a promising career for its author, the youngest writer other than Anne Frank to top the non-fiction list up to that point. McGinniss published two books in the 1970s, then journeyed to Alaska for Going to Extremes, his 1980 account of the dark side of the Alaskan dream.

In the late 1970s, McGinniss met MacDonald, a former Army doctor whose pregnant wife and daughter had been bludgeoned and stabbed to death in 1970 at their home in North Carolina. They began on friendly terms, and McGinniss agreed to share up to a third of the profits from a book. The doctor said his family had been attacked in the middle of the night by a Charles Manson-like group of hippies, chanting “Acid is groovy.” But MacDonald was convicted of murder in 1979, and McGinniss came to believe he was a manipulative psychopath.

When Fatal Vision appeared in 1983, Ross Thomas praised it in his Washington Post review as “an absorbing and totally damning indictment of Dr Jeffrey MacDonald.” Most reviewers agreed, but Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times had one caveat in an otherwise laudatory review: “There are bound to be those readers who feel that McGinniss has exploited and betrayed a friendship.”

MacDonald sued McGinniss for $15 million, saying he had been betrayed by the author, and the case was settled out of court, with McGinniss’s publishers paying MacDonald $325,000, in return for MacDonald’s agreement that McGinniss had done nothing legally wrong.

But the case took another turn in 1989 when Janet Malcolm wrote a two-part series for The New Yorker, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” later published as a book. Her opening lines have been repeated in American journalism seminars ever since: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Malcolm dissected McGinniss’s career, saying she found evidence of deceit and a willingness to ingratiate himself with people he later betrayed. Others looked at the case, including film-maker Errol Morris, who criticised McGinniss in a 2012 book. MacDonald continued a series of legal appeals of his conviction, all of which have been rejected in court.

McGinniss wrote a long, point-by-point rebuttal of Malcolm’s article, but never overcame the suspicion that he had betrayed the trust of a source. “Malcolm’s portrait of McGinniss is so damning and her portrait of MacDonald so noncommittal,” David Rieff wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “that one sometimes has to wonder about an approach in which a writer’s dishonesty is treated with more heat than the murder of three human beings.”

McGinniss was born in 1942 in New York, where his father ran a travel agency. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and worked at newspapers in Port Chester, New York and Worcester before going to Philadelphia.

He wrote several more books about true crime and sports, but the furore over Fatal Vision seemed to sap his strength as a writer. His 1993 biography of Senator Edward Kennedy, The Last Brother, was widely derided for imagined dialogue and other deficiencies.

In 2010, while researching a biography on Sarah Palin, McGinniss rented a house next door to the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate in Wasilla, Alaska, triggering outrage from her supporters. Todd Palin complained of McGinniss’s “creepy obsession with my wife.” But regardless of the risks, McGinniss believed a writer had to dive into a story, to live in his subject’s world to report it with fidelity and understanding. “For me,” he said, “the only valid kind of writing is simply one guy telling you where he’s been, what he knows and feels.” µ

Joseph McGinniss, author: born New York 9 December 1942; married firstly Christine Cooke (two daughters, one son), secondly Nancy Doherty (two sons); died Worcester, Massachusetts 10 March 2014.

© The Washington Post

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss