Joe McGinniss Gets Old-School With Sarah Palin
In defense of a journalist's stalking of a politician.
Where do I go to advance-order a copy of Joe McGinniss' forthcoming book about Sarah Palin?
Obviously my desire to put money down is premature, as the book isn't supposed to come out until 2011 and Amazon has yet to post a standing page for it. For all I know, McGinniss hasn't even written a first chapter. Yet I must find some way to commend the writer 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.
McGinniss' 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.
In calling McGinniss' ploy "assholery" I intend no disparagement. I admire his determination to get the story and have no problems, ethically or morally, with him getting as close to his subject as possible—even if his technique seems a little stalkerish. Besides, there's a long journalistic tradition of wearing sources and subjects down until they surrender ... of knocking on the door of a grieving family to ask them, "How do you feel?" ... of feigning friendliness to gain access ... of crossing police lines in a brisk manner that implies a right to be there … of charming sources' families, friends, or colleagues in order to get closer to them … of frequenting a subject's favorite bar, place of worship, and subway stop until he cracks.
Take, for example, the camera ambush, which is at least as intrusive as moving in next door to a subject. But few protested Mike Wallace's practice of chasing reluctant subjects with a camera crew after they refused to sit down and talk with 60 Minutes. After Wallace came Michael Moore, who became expert at waylaying the unexpecting in unexpected places. The strategy was largely tolerated by the journalistic culture until the boys and girls at The O'Reilly Factor started ambushing "high school principals, lawmakers, journalists and celebrities," as the New York Timesput it. Only then did people start thinking it was creepy.
Still, McGinniss' stunt will outrage those who believe reporters should get close but not too close, who believe that there is something sacred about an individual's place of residence, who would prefer reporters to behave more like Boy Scouts and less like gumshoes.
Taking up residence next to Palin doesn't even approach violating her legal right to privacy. She has no legal right to blind eyes looking at her property from an adjoining property or even from the street. If McGinniss didn't live next door, he'd be completely within his rights to interview Palin's neighbors about her. In fact, he'd be remiss if he didn't grill them about her.
Although Palin may not like the eyeballing proximity of McGinniss' perch, she seems to know he's within his rights. On her Facebook page, she writes. "Welcome, Joe! … [Y]ou know what they say about 'fences make for good neighbors'? Well, we'll get started on that tall fence tomorrow, and I'll try to keep Trig's squeals down to a quiet giggle so we don't disturb your peaceful summer."
Compared with the journalistic investigation that I assume McGinniss has commenced of his subject, sharing a property line with her is trivial. Right now I'll bet that McGinniss or a research assistant is combing the complete Palin paper trail of court filings, property records, tax assessments, and official documentation of her governorship and mayoralty, including e-mails. High on the stack will be the Palins' 1040 and other financial documents she disclosed as a vice-presidential candidate. He'll run Palin's name through every database he can find. And if there is a legal way to obtain Palin's telephone records, school records, and even her medical records, McGinniss will get them.
It's called legwork, it's called immersion journalism, and it doesn't look pretty. But it should come as a surprise to only naive newspaper readers that every day journalists treat the subjects of investigations the way McGinniss is treating Palin.
I'll predict that McGinniss' deck-side observations of the Palin family will not likely turn up much beyond atmosphere for his book. But that's not the reason he rented the house. It's his way of skywriting for all of Alaska—and America—to see that he's on Palin's case and that he's very available to sources if they want to share with him. A couple of more stunts like this, and you can expect the Joe McGinniss book to debut in the Times best-seller list.
The best joke so far to come out of the story was filed to Twitter by Slate's Christopher Beam: "Janet Malcolm should move into the house next door to Joe McGinniss and write The Journalist and the Governor." Damn you and your cleverness, Beam! Get clever via e-mail email@example.com and follow my witless Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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