KSJ Tracker November 13, 2012

Washington Post: Sex, Lies and Biography

While the debate rages over the resignation of General David Petraeus, the book written by his lover, Paula Broadwell, raises serious questions about journalistic ethics. Until now, readers of her book about the general wouldn’t know that the author and subject had been having sex.  

Had the writer of a newspaper or magazine profile failed to disclose such an affair, it would be grounds for getting fired.

And so, while the Petraeus sex scandal isn’t a science story, the existence of this book makes the tale relevant for all journalists. The latest bombshell dropped today in the Washington Post, which ran an unusual conversational first-person story by Vernon Loeb, a staffer there who finds himself in the uncomfortable but possibly lucrative position of being Broadwell’s ghost-writer. Here’s the lede: “My wife says I’m the most clueless person in America.” 

Disclosure: For some years Loeb had been a popular, highly-regarded editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I’d enjoyed working with him occasionally when I was science writer there.

Loeb’s role as he describes it was to sit in his basement and make a coherent story out of notes, email messages and interview transcripts from Broadwell, who continued to jet to Afghanistan to do “research.” (I’m not sure why Loeb refers to himself as a ghost writer when his name appears on the jacket below Broadwell’s. It seems more accurate to call him a co-author.)

The book, called All In, was published last January. According to Loeb, Broadwell’s portrayal of Petraeus, “describes him in terms that are, well, effusive.” While standards of journalistic ethics may vary from one news outlet to another, one rule that should apply to all writers of non-fiction is the need to disclose financial, family or sexual ties to the people or institutions in our stories.

Nobody expects journalists to be perfectly objective – we’re all prone to subjective feelings about the people we interview. But readers do have an expectation that we won’t write effusive things about our relatives, spouses or lovers without disclosing the relationship.  If your wife wins the Nobel Prize, there’s nothing wrong with writing a story about being the husband of one of the winners, but there would be something wrong with writing a story about her as if she were a complete stranger.

In this case, journalistic ethics overlap with ethics more generally. Broadwell is trying to sell a biography that’s supposed to be about a professional contact, not a lover.

Loeb and the Post did the right thing to get all the laundry out in the open. I did wonder, however, what he thought about the prospect of making money off Broadwell’s dishonest behavior,  the discovery of which is giving the book a huge publicity boost.

And after finishing the Post piece, it wasn’t clear which clues to the affair were obvious enough to prompt Loeb’s wife to call him “clueless”. After reading his version of the story, it seemed reasonable for him to give his co-author the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to know what Loeb’s wife found suspicious and when, and whether there was a chance to discover the affair before the FBI did. That would have been a story.

The bottom line is that journalists should disclose anything questionable. And if your spouse thinks there’s something fishy going on, pay attention. You might get the scoop of a lifetime.


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