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Chuck Lasker

Chuck Lasker

Posted: September 25, 2008 12:24 PM

Both Campaigns Use Ghost Writers, But Only One Uses Them to Manipulate Readers


Yesterday, a Salon.com article described how the McCain campaign is using ghost writers. A ghost writer is someone who writes in another person's name, hidden from public view. For example, all of John McCain's books were ghost written by staffer Mark Salter, while Barack Obama wrote his own books.

In the case of the McCain campaign, these ghost writers write fictional letters using campaign talking points, and volunteers then mail them to newspapers as if they were their own. This includes writing as a parent of a soldier in Iraq, even when the sender is not. It is a direct attempt at media manipulation with false information. The Salon article gives details and proof.

Alternatively, the Obama campaign has a Speak Out tool on their site that supporters can utilize to more easily submit letters to multiple newspapers at once. It gives topics and lists of talking points, but not prewritten letters. It certainly does not ask supporters to lie or give false identities. On the contrary, it requires full name, address, email address and telephone number to submit the form.

I did find some actual ghost writers, though, amongst the Obama site groups. They call themselves "The Ghost Writer Guild." These are not campaign staffers, nor are they directed by the campaign. Their purpose statement is,

The Ghost Writer Guild develops brief op-ed style articles so that you can easily send them to newspapers. The articles highlight notable developments in the 2008 presidential election, and are posted here on the blog for your use. You can copy and modify these articles and send them to your local news outlets or to national news sources, or post them on external blogs.

What is the difference between them and the McCain campaign's program? First, the McCain campaign is funding and directing its ghost writers, whereas The Ghost Writer Guild is not officially run by the Obama campaign. Second, McCain's ghost writers are a secret crew who are knowingly writing fiction, with false "personal information," while The Ghost Writer Guild is transparent, posting its articles onto a public blog so people can take what they believe in and personalize it as they see fit before sending to the media. The Ghost Writer Guild helps Obama supporters put their own thoughts into words. McCain's ghost writers help McCain supporters lie to the media.

I had some email conversations with the core members of The Ghost Writer Guild. The founder is Dr. Rich Griffith, a 42-year-old Republican from Melbourne, Florida, Associate Professor and Director of the Industrial Organizational Psychology Program at Florida Tech, and a published author. Dr. Griffith had been creating "Web ads" for Obama before starting this group. "I have never volunteered for a campaign before," said Griffith, "but I have a 2-year-old boy. That has a way of changing your perspective about what is important."

Jude Berman, a 58-year-old lifelong Democrat and freelance writer in Berkeley, California, is acting in the "editor in chief" role for the group. As Berman tells their story:

"Rich's idea was to maximize the ability of the campaign to get the word out. [Obama campaign] HQ has created great tools, but most people aren't writers and are a bit shy of sending letters for that reason. So why not supply some letter/op-eds and let them go from there? The group began by writing a few articles, and Rich putting out the word on [the group] blog. I joined because I happened upon one of those."

The group leaders realized that distribution was essential. "You can write a book, but unless you distribute successfully, there is no book, really," said Berman. They brainstormed ways to get their articles out to Obama supporters. Another member, Sine Thieme, jumped in and created a 3-part distribution plan that included the Obama campaign site Speak Out tool, "advanced" options using other media lists, and a blog strategy. Thieme is a 41-year-old stay-at-home mother of four, living in Overland Park, Kansas, and an aspiring writer of parenting articles and children's books. "[I] got sidetracked by the 2008 election," said Thieme, "my only published works are letters to the editor I wrote in the course of the last few months."

With a structure and method in place, the current group focus is on finding more people to utilize the group's articles.

The comparison of the way each campaign is utilizing ghost writers is a perfect analogy for how the full campaigns are operating. The McCain campaign is top-down, with directed activities, while the Obama campaign is bottom-up, with true grass root activity. Clearly, when a campaign is grass roots, it begets more honest results.