By Eileen Douglas
Surrogate mothers. Cheats who take tests for you. Parents who do
their kid’s homework. I’ve heard of those. Even stories
out of some pretty high-toned publications where the reporter made
up all or part of a juicy, award-winning article.
But in all my years since filing my first piece as a journalist
I’ve never heard of a newspaper reporter hiring someone else
to write their copy for them!
Obviously, in broadcast, even though that has to be your face on
the TV screen, or your voice on the radio, it’s possible
that someone else helps you get your story together. A writer.
A producer. But, if that’s the case, it’s upfront.
It’s part of the job. And all your colleagues know that’s
how you’re getting on the air.
But in print, where all you’ve got to sell is that you’re
the writer, it seems a little absurd to have someone else “take
the test for you.” To insert “a someone who is really
writing the story” between you --- the reporter --- and the
editor’s desk. Secretly. Why would you get someone else to
write the copy you turn in? Their work. With your name on it. I
mean, isn’t that the bottom-line, stripped bare definition
of the reporter’s job? Isn’t that the fun of it? Your
pen. Your pad. And your thoughts.
Yet, here in the paper I’m reading is a story about a music
writer and columnist for The San Antonio Express-News who resigned
after the paper accused him of hiring a ghostwriter to produce
more than 100 articles for him, under his byline, since 2001. Supposedly,
this reporter was “trying to be the best reporter/syndicated
columnist I could be.” The implication is he didn’t
think his own stuff was good enough. I guess he thought his ghostwriter/accomplice
did a better job.
This brings up all kinds of thoughts. I can see it now. Meeting
in dark alleys to turn over the sneak copy. Since no one actually
has to see you writing your story, and no one would suspect you
were doing it, I guess you can get away with it.
If it’s a concert, do you spring for the extra ticket, beyond
the one you probably got as a freebie because you’re the
music maven for the paper? Or do you get your secret scribbler
in for nothing under a pretense, say as your guest, so he or she
can be there to get their firsthand impressions? Gives new meaning
to the term sneak preview. If you’re doing a feature, say
on a rock band or a visiting violinist, do you bring your “sub” along
with you? Perhaps presented as your own groupie? Or do you just
share your notes later at a coffee shop?
If you think about it, it raises all kinds of other possibilities.
And there actually are times when the practice might come in handy.
What if hard news reporters took up the practice?
Imagine, when the phone rings, if you had some lackey in your sway
you could roust from THEIR warm bed to go cover a plane crash in
a muddy field in the middle of the night on the ice coldest day
of winter, while you roll yourself back under the covers. And then
get to file their copy with your name for the world to see, and
THEIR tush frozen. What a great deal is that! Or imagine getting
out of having to figure a way to make your zillionth, boring City
Council meeting copy sing. Let someone else sit through it. Or
have them listen in on an earpiece while you just take up a seat
in the chambers.
Perhaps on a day when she’s not feeling funny, Maureen Dowd
could get her aunt or sister to file a piece. (If she has an aunt
or sister who’s funny.) Maybe the foreign correspondent in
Afghanistan who feels stressed hanging around the resurgent Taliban
could, instead, be phoning it in while soaking up the rays in Dubai.
As for our music reporter in San Antonio, I hope he paid “him” or “her.”
That, too, raises all kinds of questions. Why would the other person
do it? What took the newspaper so long to find out? Is this the
only time it’s happened? Or has this kind of trick been done
before and we just never heard about it? Truth is, what you write
for a newspaper is done out of sight. All that composing takes
place between you and your keyboard. If you want to cheat and hire
someone else to write your copy, good chance no one would know
about it. So maybe the question shouldn’t be “How did
the newspaper finally find out?” Perhaps it should be, “How
would a newspaper EVER find out?”
My name is Eileen Douglas, and I really did write this column.
Really. I did.
Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist turned independent documentary
filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent
for “ABC-TV’s Lifetime Magazine,” she is the
author of “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” and co-producer
of the films “My Grandfather’s House” and “Luboml:My
Heart Remembers.” She can be reached at www.douglas-steinman.com.