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The Trials of Joe McGinniss

Thursday, 01 September 2011 04:06 By Matthew Harwood, Truthout | Report
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On May 24, 2010, Palin posted a photo on Facebook she called, "Just When Ya Think It Can't Get Any More 'Interesting' ... Welcome, Neighbor!" The photo showed a large man leaning over the rail of a second-story deck peering out into the woods with what appear to be binoculars.

Tagged to the photo was a snarky comment from Palin that read, "Hi, Neighbor! May I Call You 'Joe'?" The new renter in the photo wasn't any "average Joe" though. Rather he was New York Times bestselling author and investigative journalist Joe McGinniss.A master of immersion journalism, McGinniss has built a long and successful career on getting as close to his subjects as humanly possible, digging up dirt on them and then burying them with it. Now, he was trying to get as close to Palin as possible without trespassing on her lakefront property, to the delight of Palin haters everywhere.

Palin, naturally, wasn't too pleased that a famed muckraking journalist had moved next door to her family, especially since Random House was backing McGinniss' book on her. (Palin had already gotten a taste of McGinniss' talents the previous spring when he published a cover story on her failed Alaskan pipeline dealings for Condé Nast Portfolio, after McCain plucked her off of Alaska's permafrost to be his running mate in 2008.) Palin's online supporters went nuts at the prospect that a journalist had the temerity to move next to his subject, calling him "vermin" and a "stalker." Journalists rose to McGinniss' defense, with Slate's Jack Shafer commending him for "an act of journalistic assholery - renting the house next door to the Palin family in Wasilla, Alaska, from which he is going to research and write his book - that honors a long tradition of snooping."

But McGinniss also has a reputation for being another type of journalist. Two decades ago, McGinniss was sued by former Army doctor Jeffery MacDonald for breach of contract after McGinniss agreed to write a book about MacDonald's attempt to clear his name, after he was accused of killing his pregnant wife and two small children. The resulting civil trail showed that McGinniss had regularly deceived MacDonald to ensure his protagonist kept talking for his book. He also told MacDonald not to talk to other journalists interested in his story. McGinniss, however, had long become convinced of MacDonald's guilt and penned "Fatal Vision," in which he portrayed MacDonald as a cold-blooded, pathological narcissist. (MacDonald was convicted of murdering his family, although he continues to maintain his innocence.) The case was later settled out of court after MacDonald's first suit ended in a hung jury, but the ethical concerns highlighted by the case became the heart of New Yorker reporter Janet Malcolm's now classic dissection of the journalist-subject relationship, "The Journalist and the Murderer."

Today, a trio of authors says that the unscrupulous McGinnis portrayed in "The Journalist and the Murderer" is very real. They allege that the bestselling journalist leaked a manuscript of their tell-all Palin book - The New York Times bestseller "Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin" - to destroy any chance it would be published and compete with his own forthcoming Palin exposé, "The Rogue." McGinniss admits he received and distributed the manuscript, but maintains that the idea that he did so to hurt the authors' chance at publication is absurd because the authors were nobodies, whose work presented no threat to his book's success. Truthout has obtained numerous emails written by McGinniss surrounding this incident that contradict his story and, once again, paint a damning picture of the journalist's ethics, as first exposed by Malcolm. (Click here to download the email correspondence. McGinniss uses the handle "lucylake.")

***
Sometime around February 16, McGinniss received a copy of the manuscript, "Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin." The book is Frank Bailey's insider account of his time as one of Palin's top aides in Alaska, co-written with Jeanne Devon, the editor of the popular Alaskan political blog The Mudflats, and Ken Morris, a former Wall Street executive turned author. Bolstered by tens of thousands of emails Bailey received during his time in the Republican rock star's employ, the authors describe a vindictive small-time politician who is more enamored with her skyrocketing celebrity than the hard work of governing Alaska.

Believing they produced an important work that would sell well, Carol Mann, the writers' agent, sent the manuscript via email without a confidentiality requirement to Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Crown, however, had already committed to publishing McGinniss' Palin tell-all under its Broadway Books imprint. Instead of simply passing along the manuscript, Broadway Books Executive Editor Charlie Conrad sent the manuscript of "Blind Allegiance" into the hands of a competitor.

An email sent directly to Conrad inquiring why he sent the manuscript to McGinniss, an author writing on the same topic, was returned by Crown Publishing Group's Director of Publicity David Drake.

"The manuscript for Blind Allegiance was sent by email to many publishers, including to Joe McGinniss' publisher, Crown, by the Carol Mann Agency with no confidentiality requirement ..." wrote Drake. "In this instance, where no confidentiality notice was provided, Mr. McGinniss' editor sent the proposal to him for his professional and informed opinion as part of the process of considering the manuscript for publication."

That is, Conrad sent the manuscript to his own author, whose own forthcoming book on Palin was due out in September. Apparently the possibility that McGinniss might not be a neutral arbiter of the manuscript's worthiness did not dawn on Mr. Conrad.

Mann, according to Morris, summed up her assessment of the McGinniss incident this way: "I haven't seen it happen in over 30 yrs [sic] in the business."

Mann declined to comment for this story.

Within days, whole selections of the manuscript were being cited and quoted on cable news and online. Once-interested publishers bailed on the project. Some, say Morris, explicitly cited the leak, and the book's juiciest contents splashed across MSNBC and the blogosphere as reasons not to purchase rights to the book. On "Hardball, "Chris Matthews called Bailey "a rat," but sized up the situation immediately. "Now, the wrinkle in this is the competition between this guy, this character and the great Joe McGinniss, who's up there living next door," Matthews told Mother Jones' David Corn and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution's Cynthia Tucker. "And I cannot wait to get him on the show. Now, he apparently leaked this manuscript. So, it would screw the chance of this getting any sale. His book will get all the sales."

Morris reacted to the leak fast, having his attorney Dean Steinbeck send a cease-and-desist order to McGinniss. In response, McGinniss' attorney Dennis Holahan didn't contest his client sent the manuscript to media outlets in Alaska. "[W]hen Mr. McGinniss received a copy of the manuscript for comment, he had no way of knowing whether all or part of it had already been disclosed to the public or the media by any other parties," Holahan wrote to Steinbeck. "He sent it to a few people and media outlets in Alaska, advising them that they should not reproduce any of the manuscript before contacting the authors for permission." McGinniss, however, never took his own advice and it would have been easy to. Up until he received the manuscript, he considered Devon his friend and had her contact information as well as Bailey's.

But Bailey, Devon and Morris do not believe McGinniss' dissemination of their manuscript was innocent. They believe he leaked their manuscript to sabotage their chances of finding a publisher, thereby saving his own book, "The Rogue," due out in September, from competition.

Holahan called such allegations preposterous. "Mr. McGinniss is one of the top investigative journalists in the United States," wrote Holahan. "He does not waste time trying to eliminate the competition, especially in this case, where the competition does not appear to have the right to publish the material that forms the strongest appeal of the manuscript," a reference to the Palin emails that made up the core of the manuscript.

Aside from responding to the authors' allegation of malice, Holahan defended McGinniss' actions on multiple accounts. He noted that Bailey's, Devon's and Morris' agent sent the manuscript to publishing houses by email and that the email did not contain an explicit "notice of confidentiality." Holahan also argues McGinniss didn't violate the authors copyright because he never copied the manuscript, he merely sent it to Alaskan media outlets and told them not to reproduce any of it without the author's permission. Holahan then ended his argument on behalf of his client in a curious manner. "Mr. McGinniss owed no duty to and had no contractual or fiduciary relationship with, your clients with respect to the manuscript," Holahan wrote. "As a journalist, he had the right to do with it as he saw fit, short of copying any portion of it into his own book."

Whether Holahan's interpretation of copyright law is correct could be tested in the near future. If it is, he may have to explain an email McGinniss sent to a friend of Devon's on February 17, 2011, because it undermines Holahan's defense of his client as merely a journalist above any conflict of interest, who was just exercising the privilege of his occupation. Writing to a friend of co-author Devon, McGinniss frets that the manuscript could hurt his book.

"[Devon's] proposal could - though it probably won't, which I can say now that I've read the full manuscript attached to the proposal - lead to a book that would come out at the same time as mine and detract from the attention paid to mine by diluting it, thereby hurting my sales, thereby taking money out of my pocket in order that she might have more to put into hers," wrote McGinniss.

Throughout the email, McGinniss appears angry at Devon for, in his opinion, betraying a friendship they struck up when McGinniss moved to Alaska to research his book. According to the email, McGinniss believes Devon should have told him that she was also writing a book on Palin. The email, however, is peppered with speculation. He accuses Devon of "using her talent to whore for a schmuck like Frank Bailey" by ghostwriting the book and creating a conflict of interest by not disclosing the book project to her readers. "She continues to write about Sarah (Palin) as if she's merely a blogger casting a critical eye, when if [sic] fact she's secretly taking money to work on an anti-Sarah project and hoping for more if the project sells, which she can help by trashing Sarah on Mudflats," wrote McGinniss, adding, "Yuck. That smells."

According to Morris, the writing trio never received a dime from anyone for their work on the book until they sold the manuscript to Howard Books, the Christian division of Simon & Schuster, which McGinniss' leak almost deep-sixed. Devon, also, did not "whore" herself out to the "schmuck" Baily or ghostwrite "Blind Allegiance." The work was a collaboration, she says and, at first, a weird one: she and Morris are liberal progressives and Bailey one very conservative Christian.

McGinniss also gave a piece of his mind to Devon directly. After receiving the manuscript, he wrote her an email with the subject - "Bailey & You" - on February 17, the same day she, Bailey and Morris learned the manuscript had been leaked: "Surprised to see you are working with Frank Bailey. More than disappointed you didn't tell me." Before Devon could respond, McGinniss emailed her again. This time it was mean-spirited. "Actually, having now read the manuscript, I'm appalled that you're a co-author," he wrote. "But best of luck with it. I hope what you get out of it is worth the price of a friendship."

Devon responded apologetically, trying to explain why she didn't tell McGinniss she had her own Palin book in the works.

Joe, you were top on my list to tell. I've been sick having to internalize this. I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement at the very beginning that I would not tell anyone. My own mother died not even knowing I was working on this.

I don't know what to say other than I'm sorry and that in any of our conversations regarding your project I have been absolutely respectful in keeping those things completely between us.

Hope you can forgive me. :(

Love you

McGinniss didn't swallow Devon's explanation. "Please don't cheapen the word 'love,'" he replied. "Nor your mother. You've already cheapened yourself."

However burned he felt, McGinniss followed up his stabs at Devon by leaking the manuscript - with its smorgasbord of confidential Palin emails - to a media always in a Palin feeding frenzy.

According to Devon, she had kept things McGinniss told her about his own book in emails confidential. She didn't leak them to fellow journalists or bloggers or reveal them on her own blog. "When he sent out our manuscript, he knew already that I indeed kept those confidences," she says. "Nothing he ever told me ended up in our book. Why would it? Our books are different. Ours is Frank's story. His is not. So, knowing that I had in fact kept his secrets and not violated his trust, he leaked our book anyway. Really unbelievable."

McGinniss also had reason to be upset with Bailey. A former part of Palin's inner circle and publicly implicated in TrooperGate (in which the then-governor fired the state's public safety commissioner for not removing her ex-brother-in-law from the state trooper force), Bailey had information McGinniss wanted for his own book. But McGinniss knew Bailey was also working on a book about his time with Palin and knew he'd be a tough nut to crack. In a June 15, 2010, email to Bailey, McGinniss tried to cozy up to him in an attempt to get him to talk, assuring him, "I don't know when your book will be published, but Random House/Broadway will not publish mine until fall of 2011, so there's no danger that anything you tell me will result in you scooping yourself."

By September, McGinniss sent a sharper email to Bailey prodding him to talk. "I hope your enterprise is going well," he wrote, "but at the same time I must say that if you are at all realistic you will recognize that only my book about Palin will have national and international traction." The email was McGinniss' latest and unsuccessful, attempt to get Baily to speak with him about his time with Palin. "But let me be clear: this is not a suggestion that I might ever pay you for your information," McGinniss wrote (emphasis in the email). "Others may work that way; I do not." However, McGinniss had agreed to pay Jeffrey MacDonald, according to his epilogue to the 1989 edition of "Fatal Vision," 20 percent of the first-half of his advance for "Fatal Vision," which was $150,000, as well as 33 percent of the book's royalties in return for complete access to the then accused murderer in 1979.

Holahan's claim that McGinniss informed those he sent the manuscript to that they should not reproduce it without the writers' consent is clearly false in one instance, says Devon. On February 17, Devon received an email from Alaskan blogger Jesse Griffin, who goes by the name Gryphen on the blog Immoral Minority. In his email, he excerpts a message from the manuscript's leaker: "obviously, you are free to use anything you want from the cover letter or the manuscript itself, since both were sent to a number of NY publishers with no confidentiality requirements." During a phone conversation with Griffin immediately after receiving this email, Devon told Truthout that he admitted to her that McGinniss was the source. Repeated attempts to contact Griffin to corroborate Devon's story by email and Facebook were ignored.

The same was also true of McGinniss. Truthout's repeated requests for McGinniss' side of the story were not returned by the author. They were, however, returned by his attorney, who repeatedly threatened legal action. "If you have somehow acquired private emails sent by Mr. McGinniss, you do not have the right to re-publish them on any website or in any other media publication of any sort," Holahan responded. "If you do so, you will incur civil liability for invasion of privacy and copyright infringement."

Holahan, however, later changed course and requested that Truthout publish all emails quoted in this story in full as well as the above email Devon sent to McGinniss apologizing for keeping her book deal from him. That request also came with a threat of legal action as well. "If you do not publish the full emails, including the above apology from Jeanne Devon, you will be presenting Mr. McGinniss in a false light, which is one of the forms of defamation and invasion of privacy recognized in most of the 50 states, including New York, Massachusetts and California, and you will be liable for damages," wrote Holahan.

Once again, it seems McGinniss had forgotten a lesson with which Malcolm hanged him more than two decades ago: never leave in writing statements that contradict your defense. During MacDonald's suit against McGinniss, the convicted murderer's lawyer gleefully quoted from approximately 40 letters that McGinniss sent to his client telling him he was innocent and insinuating his book could help free him. As Malcolm put it in "The Journalist and the Murderer," "even the staunchest defender of a journalist's right to do his work in whatever unpleasant way he chooses cannot but wonder how McGinniss could have been so imprudent as to leave behind ... a written record of his bad faith."

***

What's striking about the many McGinniss emails obtained by Truthout is how similar they are to the man described in "The Journalist and the Murderer." (These similarities were not lost on Morris, who drew up a list comparing Malcolm's character sketch of McGinniss and his own experience with the man.) Within the emails, McGinniss once again reveals the character flaws - the manipulation, self-aggrandizement and self-righteousness -  that Malcolm exposed to cringe-inducing effect. In her book, Malcolm cites at length the letters McGinniss had written to MacDonald, urging him to discuss his case with no one else. At the time McGinniss was working on "Fatal Vision," two other competitors were also trying to write their own books on the MacDonald case. In one of those letters to MacDonald, McGinniss tells his subject:

I mentioned to your Mom last night that I felt strongly you should not start doing a bunch of interviews while in prison. There's no way that kind of thing can do you any good right now; I am thinking of [Bob] Keeler [of Newsday] in particular. Whether or not he is going ahead with his book I do not know, but, frankly, the one and only one in which you have any interest is the one to which I will be devoting the next two years of my life.

In another letter to MacDonald, McGinniss worries about a book by the stepfather of MacDonald's murdered wife. He asks MacDonald to talk to his lawyer to see if they can't send a letter to the book's publisher or writer "reminding them of the extent to which libel and invasion of privacy laws might apply in this situation,'' and adding that "If a timely reminder of legal implications might still be able to forestall this, I would think it worth a try...."

Two decades ago, McGinniss wrote MacDonald, uneasily hoping "that the two books are not published at the same time, or even in the same season." It's a common trait in the writing business to look over your shoulder and fear someone else is writing something similar to you, Malcolm observed. What made McGinniss different is that when he sees his competition coming, he's not above sticking out his foot.

***

"Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin" hit bookshelves on May 24 and briefly reached 13 on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Morris says Howard Books finally agreed to publish the book because it wasn't just about the revelations in Palin's office emails, but a story of Bailey's personal redemption as he realized that working for the conservative Christian politician, ironically, caused him to violate his Christian beliefs.

What particularly annoys co-author Morris about the McGinniss fiasco is the collateral damage the journalist caused. "Since I'd committed to donate 100% of what I made on this book to charity anyway, it was not a personal sacrifice," Morris wrote Truthout in an email. "However, McGinniss' treachery cost the First Base Foundation, Global Aids Interfaith Alliance and a woman's cancer fund tens of thousands of dollars (if not hundreds of thousands of dollars)."

According to emails shared among the writers, their lawyer and their agent immediately after the leak, Morris was incredulous that McGinniss was the source of the leak and not some Palin partisan. "I never thought those on the same side of the political fence would end up being the obstacles," he wrote to his agent Mann. "Live and learn (the hard way)."

Morris is now a frequent visitor to McGinniss' "The Rogue" Blog. According to Morris, McGinniss is Palin with an Adam's apple. The most infuriating McGinniss post that Morris flagged recently discussed Broadway Books' roll-out strategy for "The Rogue." About a week after the New Hampshire debate, when Rep. Michele Bachmann announced her run for the White House, McGinniss penned an antagonistic post directed at Palin, calling her a has-been. In the post, McGinniss provoked Palin as he plugged his forthcoming book, asking: "I wonder if she's placed an advance order for THE ROGUE." But what really caught Morris' attention was how McGinniss acknowledged that leaks can financially hurt the prospects of a yet-to-be-published manuscript. Referring to his own manuscript, McGinniss wrote:

Even the version shown to magazines this week for possible first serial excerpt in advance of Sept. 20 publication was redacted.

Just like the Palin emails.

There are revelations in the book that Random House/Crown just won't risk having leaked prematurely.

For Morris, this blog post was McGinniss' bloody glove; his admission that leaking a manuscript can destroy an author's painstaking work.

"[H]e cannot pretend ignorance that leaking would likely harm, if not destroy (which it very nearly did) the viability of the work," Morris wrote in an email to Truthout. "Excerpts of our book became less interesting and were unavailable to us because all the material was already leaked. He has an attractive marketing option that he kept us from utilizing."

In correspondence with Morris, there's a sense he simply cannot wrap his head around McGinniss and his decision to leak "Blind Allegiance."

"What happened to self-reflection, truth, honesty and introspection in this world?" Morris asked, the sentiment coursing through each email he fired off.

Matthew Harwood

Matthew Harwood is a journalist in Washington, DC, and a frequent contributor to the Guardian's Comment is Free. His writing has appeared in The Washington Monthly, Progress Magazine (U.K.) as well as online at Columbia Journalism Review, CommonDreams, and Alternet. He is currently working on a book about evangelical Christian rhetoric and aggressive US foreign policy. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mharwood31.


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