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
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there