Ruth Marcus and Joe McGinniss: A Model of Ethical Advocacy and a Cad

–Richard E. Vatz

This blog is about what some people have opined regarding writer Joe McGinniss’s moving in next door to Governor Sarah Palin to write a book on her. As described in disgustingly praising, jocular prose by Jack Shafer of Slate, McGinniss is “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. McGinniss’s previous demonstration of overreach in pursuit of a story was to bid all the way to $60,101 in a charity auction on eBay last year for dinner with Palin before dropping out. Compared with that, renting a house next to Palin for five months seems pedestrian.”

What McGinniss is doing is simply despicable. No qualifiers are necessary. But, as I indicated, I am even more interested here in honor and dishonor in opinion-writing.

All of my adult life – over 40 years, year-counters — I have observed that there are two main categories of opinionated people: those who have values of decency and fairness and are open to evidentiary appeals to modify their positions, and those simply who have no such values and are evidence-averse. There are combinations and permutations of these two extremes, but the first and second two qualities usually go together.

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When I limit this dichotomy to public figures, I focus on politicians and pundits. There are matters which transcend politics and political philosophy, and they often deal with a basic decency and fairness in dealing with issues and opposition – you don’t misquote your opponents; you give your interlocutor a chance to make his/her argument, and you exercise honorable deportment in pursuing said issues. Another example: you don’t make irrelevant ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with you.

As I have been fascinated by the qualities of argumentation of exponents, parenthetically I confess I am most intrigued by honorable liberals and dishonorable conservatives. Without getting into either category in this particular blog generally, let me focus on a clash today in The Washington Post.

I have been a fan of liberal Post columnist Ruth Marcus for a long time. I once e-mailed her a compliment regarding her criticisms of the distracting, comprehension-destroying Microsoft Powerpoint program, and she answered my missive substantively. But really what impresses me is her consistent ethicality. She and I disagree on many, if not most, issues, but I never find her using utterly fatuous arguments.

This is not a new observation of mine. Nearly two years ago, I e-mailed David Zurawik, another principled liberal writer, “David, you win my ‘Ruth Marcus Award’ for honest reporting by a ‘progressive’ reporter.”

Which brings us to today’s Marcusian attack on Joe McGinniss, a writer who is probably liberal, but who has incurred the wrath of said partisans from time to time. Moreover, he has a career marked by consistent accusations of lack of journalistic honesty: charges of plagiarism, misrepresentation of political preferences to gain access to sources, etc. and more etc.

Marcus in The Washington Post’s blog “Post Partisan” calls McGinniss’s move next to Gov. Palin and her family “unnecessarily intrusive,” not much different from “stalking,” violative of even a public figure’s right to “privacy,” and she accurately states that “seizing the opportunity to live next door is creepy.” Slightly attenuating her admirable attack on McGinniss’s creepiness, Marcus closes by saying that “he is no mensch.”

I have a pretty good claim of disinterest regarding kerfuffles in which Sarah Palin has been involved. I find her conservatism attractive, but some of her political behavior, such as withdrawing from the governorship of Alaska, is politically and governmentally indefensible.

Marcus’s criticism of McGinniss is right on the mark, if insufficiently harsh and condemning.

Read more on this issue: there is not a personally decent writer or commentator who will not be appalled at what Joe McGinniss has done to Sarah Palin and her husband and children.

Professor Vatz teaches an advanced Persuasion class and a Media Criticism class at Towson University

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