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Joe McGinniss

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Joe McGinniss made his career writing about morally conflicted figures of late-20th-century America, from Richard Nixon to Green Beret–turned–family murderer Jeffrey MacDonald to Sarah Palin. In the process, he became almost as controversial as his subjects, and his greatest commercial success also earned him a lasting reputation for journalistic malpractice.

McGinniss's first success, The Selling of the President 1968, was intended as a more cynical counterpoint to T. H. White's best-selling Making of the President series. With help from friends like future Fox News honcho Roger Ailes—who later lost his campaign job over his portrayal in the book—McGinniss gained access to the inner workings of the Nixon media apparatus, largely by leading the Nixon people to believe he was sympathetic to their cause. Similarly, Jeffrey MacDonald and his lawyers gave McGinniss a level of access that seems absurd today (in exchange for a cut of the eventual royalties) during MacDonald's second trial for murdering his wife and two children, on the premise that McGinniss's book would depict him favorably. Throughout the trial, McGinniss claimed to believe in MacDonald's innocence, but the book published after MacDonald's conviction, Fatal Vision, came to a very different conclusion, and MacDonald sued for breach of contract, claiming McGinniss had been lying to him all along. The lawsuit cost McGinniss $325,000 and became the primary topic of Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, now a standard cautionary text in journalism schools. Malcolm's comparison of journalists in general, and McGinniss in particular, to con artists, "preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse," echoed the words of the judge in the MacDonald lawsuit, who'd compared McGinniss to a "thief in the night."

McGinniss's later attempts at journalism were critically panned and commercially underwhelming. (To his credit, he returned his entire $1 million advance for a book about the O. J. Simpson trial, describing the trial as a "farce," and perhaps indicating that he'd learned a thing or two about concealing his sympathies for his career's sake.) His last major work, an exposť of Sarah Palin, got him back in the news when Palin alleged that his primary motivation for moving into the house next to hers was peeping in her young children's windows. The lurid, mostly anonymously sourced allegations in the book itself didn't rise much above that level of trashiness, but the observation that Palin's political career was "unblushingly underwritten by a mainstream media willing to gamble the nation's future in exchange for the cheap thrill of watching a clown in high heels on a flying trapeze" suggested the closure of a loop: McGinniss had begun his career writing about the birth, or at least the growing pains, of the political-media monster and ended it writing about what happened when the monster ran amok.

Joe McGinniss died of prostate cancer on March 10. He was 71. Hulka (who enjoys referring to himself in the third person) gets 13 points (8 points for hit + 5 points for solo).

--Hulka

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