Last week the Los Angeles Times published a passing strange commentary on one of Charles Colson's recent Christianity Today columns. Colson's column was titled "Post-Truth Society," and it explored the reasons that lying has become so prevalent in our cultural context. The column referred to a number of high-profile liars—from historian Joseph Ellis, who invented a Vietnam war record for himself, to George O'Leary whose brief, five-day career as Notre Dame's football coach ended when fabrications on his résumé were brought to light.
The Los Angeles Times's Tim Rutten thought "Post-Truth Society" was problematic, since (according to Nancy Pearcey, former Colson staffwriter) Colson did not write the column that bore his byline and his picture.
Rutten called me as he was working on his piece. I told him several things:
First, that we knew that Charles Colson used the help of a writing team to produce his prodigious output. In fact, I had written about this in one of my editor's notes in 1996 when he decided to share his byline with Nancy Pearcey.
Second, that when Pearcey left his employ a few years ago, he had begun to write his columns singlehandedly. (I told Rutten I hadn't talked to Chuck recently about how he was producing his columns now.)
Third, that Chuck is not oblivious to the ethical questions involved in writing with the help of a staff; that he has in the past made decisions as to when and how to credit staff based on a variety of factors. You might disagree with Colson as to when and how he applies the standard he has developed, I told Rutten, but you can hardly complain that he has no standard or compare him with other Christian leaders who simply fail to credit staffwriters and ghostwriters at all.
Fourth, that Rutten should call Chuck to get the full story. I provided the necessary phone number.
I was actually amazed when I saw Tim Rutten's column. He mixed hearsay from some years back with speculation about the way Colson's staffwriters work today. That combination is the recipe for innuendo.
The column suggested that Chuck usually just signs off on drafts produced by his writers. And if I were to ask Colson about how this particular column came to be, Rutten's source averred, I would discover that his contribution "is much less than the public imagines." (Did his source hire Gallup or Yankelovich to find out what "the public imagines"?)
Well, I talked to Chuck and to some of his staff, and here's my report:
First, after about 18 months of solo writing, Chuck returned to relying on his staffwriters for help with his columns.
Second, of all the writing that Chuck and his staff produce, his greatest personal involvement is in his columns for Christianity Today.
Third, Chuck was thoroughly involved in writing "Post-Truth Society." He provided me with a copy of a memo dated last September in which he outlined in detail his ideas for the column. The memo also suggested resource people to talk to and previous material he had written on which his staff could draw. He orchestrated the process by which this column came to be. The staff added illustrations, consulted the reference people he pointed them to, and wrote smooth, easy-to-read copy for two BreakPoint radio scripts and one CT column. They made a great contribution. But Chuck didn't just sign off on a staff-written piece: the column has his fingerprints all over it.
Now for a few random observations about staffwriting and ghostwriting.
First, if Total Wreck, Arizona, is a ghost town, Washington, D.C., is a ghostwriter's town. Those who are skilled researchers and writers are in high demand on Capitol Hill, in the White House, by issue-driven activists—even by some syndicated columnists!
The public is well aware of the role of presidential speechwriters, and to a lesser extent most of us know that Senators and Representatives also use staff to produce opinion pieces and speeches that help create support for their legislative agenda. John F. Kennedy, it is well known, received a Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn't write. (One rare exception in the District was former Sen. Paul Simon, who as a former downstate Illinois newspaperman relished writing his own material.)
That is how business is done in D.C., and many Christian and conservative activists there also use staffwriters to promote their moral agenda to the nation's leaders. Perhaps those of us in the know need to educate the reading public to this phenomenon.
Second, in recent informal conversations, I have heard people compare staffwriting with plagiarism. These are not the same thing. Popular historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have recently been criticized for plagiarism. Chuck Colson and others have been criticized for using hired writers.
Plagiarism violates two responsibilities: one to the original author of the material and one to the reader. Plagiarism first denies due credit (and sometimes compensation) to the original author. And then it misleads the reader.
Using hired writers does not routinely violate the responsibility to the one who crafts the words. There is usually a clear business arrangement (often a written contract), and writers are often willing to trade credit for compensation. If the contract is fulfilled, the responsibility is met.
But using hired writers still has the potential for misleading readers. To avoid misunderstanding, many celebrity authors will name a hired writer on their book's title page (as Bruce Wilkinson did in The Prayer of Jabez) or in a book's acknowledgments or even on the dust jacket (as Charles Colson did for How Now Shall We Live?).
The irony of Tim Rutten's piece in the Los Angeles Times is that it claimed that one of the trailblazers of disclosure had something to hide. There has hardly been any high-profile Christian author who has been more open about the role of staffwriters. Go figure.
Two footnotes: (1) Christianity Today's online editors helped with the research for this column. (2) I telephoned Nancy Pearcey to discuss Rutten's piece. She replied by e-mail, saying she was unavailable until after this commentary's deadline.
Tim Rutten's Colson commentary was the second item in his Friday "Regarding Media" column.
Colson responded to Rutten's column in yesterday's Breakpoint radio commentary.
People involved in researching and writing for Colson are listed on the "About Breakpoint" page, which seems to be a bit out of date.
Journalists have been discussing Rutten's column at Jim Romenesko's MediaNews Weblog (see his letters page).
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