Source of controversy

Joe McGinniss is taking hits from all sides for his Sarah Palin exposť. But he’s been through this sort of thing before.

Joe McGinniss has published 11 books, and “The Rogue,’’ about Sarah Palin, is not the first one to generate criticism. “Once every 20 years or so, I like to stir things up,’’ he says. Joe McGinniss has published 11 books, and “The Rogue,’’ about Sarah Palin, is not the first one to generate criticism. “Once every 20 years or so, I like to stir things up,’’ he says. (Chad Batka for The New York Times)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / September 27, 2011

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On the Internet, Joe McGinniss is being trashed by Sarah Palin’s supporters for trashing her in his new book, “The Rogue.’’ In the mainstream media, he is being trashed for using innuendo and unnamed sources to trash Palin.

All of this has raised the strange spectacle of the “lamestream press,’’ as Palin calls it, defending her while deriding McGinniss, a veteran writer.

McGinniss, who lives in Amherst, has been through this sort of thing before. “It’s like ‘Back to the Future,’ ’’ he says in a recent telephone interview.

“The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin,’’ published last week, is McGinniss’s 12th book and may prove the most controversial in a career filled with controversy. It portrays Palin as vindictive and hypocritical, a narcissist who was clueless about her jobs as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and then governor of the state, a religious nut and a lousy mother stuck in a lousy marriage.

Shortly before the book was published, National Enquirer splashed some of its steamier allegations: Palin, as a young woman, snorted cocaine off an oil drum during a snowmobile outing; as a young sports reporter, she hooked up with former NBA star Glen Rice; she had an affair with her husband’s business partner (both sides have denied this).

The comic strip “Doonesbury’’ has been incorporating excerpts from “The Rogue,’’ and some newspapers have declined to run those strips, adding to the buzz surrounding the book.

That kind of attention might help sell books, but McGinniss is not pleased with it. He spent the past week in New York doing media interviews, defending himself against charges that he relied too heavily on unnamed sources and that the book was unfair to Palin. He also became the target of threats after he rented a house next door to the Palins in the spring and summer of 2010 while he researched the book. He mailed an interview request to Palin, who never replied. With the book now published, he says, the threats have returned.

“Having the National Enquirer get the book and leak juicy details is the worst possible introduction a book can have,’’ says McGinniss, 68, who graduated from College of the Holy Cross and then worked briefly as a reporter at the Worcester Telegram. “If you took the National Enquirer revelations, they total 20 pages out of a 320-page book.’’

By his very choice of subject, McGinniss invited controversy.

“He picked one of the most inflammatory subjects going, especially in this coming [election] year,’’ says Jill Kneerim, a Boston literary agent who has not worked with McGinniss. (Palin has not announced whether she will seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.)

Of the book controversy, Kneerim adds: “I’m sure it’s going to sell copies for him. But is it the best thing for him in the end? That’s another question.’’

Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, has not read “The Rogue’’ but notes that there is a long history of writers using unnamed sources in books about public officials. “Bob Woodward doesn’t name a single source in any of his books,’’ says Jones, referring to the Washington Post associate editor and author who, as a young reporter, broke the Watergate scandal using an anonymous source known as “Deep Throat.’’

“I think you have to trust the writer, and I think that is the question,’’ Jones says. “Does Joe McGinniss have his readers’ trust? He’s clearly been a very successful writer, so apparently some people are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.’’

Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., hasn’t read “The Rogue’’ but says books of the genre are “quasi-journalistic and should have high standards.’’ Confidential sources, he says, should be used “very thoughtfully, very carefully and, ideally, rarely.

“No matter what one thinks about Sarah Palin, there is a reputational trail that is connected to what Joe McGinniss or anybody else writes,’’ Steele says. “McGinniss has an obligation to be fair in both his methods and the content of what he writes.’’

“The Rogue,’’ however, makes no bones about the author’s view of Palin as an entertainer masquerading as a politician: “a clown in high heels on a flying trapeze.’’

Palin’s representatives did not return the calls from a Globe reporter seeking comment about the book. Her husband, Todd, told the “Today’’ show: “He’s spent the last year interviewing marginal figures with an ax to grind in order to churn out a hit piece to satisfy his own creepy obsession with my wife.’’

In a 40-year career, McGinniss has been both loved and loathed by the critics. He was 27 when his first book, “The Selling of the President 1968,’’ about the image packaging of Richard Nixon, garnered critical acclaim. But it was his 1983 book, “Fatal Vision,’’ that has attracted the most attention. It told the story of Green Beret Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, now serving three life sentences for the murders of his wife and their two children.

When the book came out, MacDonald, who had allowed McGinniss full access to his defense, filed a breach-of-contract suit, claiming that McGinniss had broken their agreement to write about his innocence. The lawsuit, which went to a trial that ended in a hung jury, was later settled, and the entire affair was detailed in a book by journalist and author Janet Malcolm, who sharply criticized McGinniss for an unprofessional and dishonest relationship with his subject.

Perhaps the greatest critical scorn was reserved for his 1993 book, “The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy,’’ an unauthorized biography of US Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Other Kennedy biographers, including Arthur Schlesinger and William Manchester, accused McGinniss of plagiarism. McGinniss denied the charges and blamed Kennedy’s office for waging a smear campaign.

“Once every 20 years or so, I like to stir things up,’’ McGinniss says, adding that three of his books have had a “positive social impact.’’

“The Selling of the President’’ informed the public about the propaganda packaging of Nixon, and “Fatal Vision’’ helped keep a guilty man behind bars , he says. The third book? “ ‘Rogue,’ because it does finally get behind the mask of Sarah Palin.’’

The initial coverage of “The Rogue’’ has not been positive. The New York Times said of the gossipy passages: “A journalist as seasoned as Mr. McGinniss surely knows what these details will do to his credibility regarding the book’s more serious claims.’’

McGinniss brushes off such complaints. “When the dust settles, I think my reputation will be enhanced,’’ he says. “But that’s for others to decide. I just write the best book I can and move on to the next one.’’

“The Rogue’’ uses lots of anonymous sources - there are also more than 70 named sources - and McGinniss says he had to protect many who spoke to him because of the fear factor in Wasilla.

“The Palins have been intimidating people for many, many years,’’ he says. “The fear was really palpable, unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere, including with Jeffrey MacDonald.’’ According to “The Rogue,’’ the current mayor of Wasilla (coincidentally a native of Saugus) was one of many residents who asked McGinniss if he wanted a gun for protection.

“I got a lot of gun offers, but I never did take them up,’’ says McGinniss. “I’ve never fired a gun in my life, and I figured I’d be more likely to shoot myself than someone else.’’

What in his research surprised him the most? “It was how intensely she was disliked in Alaska,’’ he says, despite her high approval rating among conservatives nationwide. “I found the people who knew her best liked her least, and the people who had known her the longest trusted her the least and feared her the most. I didn’t expect that.’’

If journalists are criticizing McGinniss, in “The Rogue’’ he aims plenty of his own vitriol at the press, writing that journalists have been “reduced to a level of helpless codependency’’ with Palin, who “practices politics as lap dance.’’

“This is a woman who is a charter member of the Dominionist Christians who want America to become a theocracy,’’ he says. “She has said she expects Jesus to return to earth during her lifetime. And someone who believes these things . . . and came within a few votes of being a heartbeat away from the presidency has gotten a free pass from the mainstream media.’’

For his next project, McGinniss has a less controversial figure in his sights. He wants to write about Bruce Springsteen.

“He’s gone from Jersey Shore scruffy rocker to an American icon,’’ McGinniss says.

“He apparently is the genuinely nice guy he appears to be. My Crown editor is concerned because Bruce doesn’t have a dark side. After Sarah, I’d love to write about somebody like that.’’

Bella English can be reached at

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