An Op-Ed Ghostwriter Speaks

Is it “a breach of trust” for a publication to publish an opinion piece that was written with the participation of public relations professionals?  That was the conclusion of a recent article in Health News Review, a publication that bills itself as “Your Health News Watchdog.”(“Another ‘breach of trust’ at STAT: patient who praised TV drug ads says pharma PR company asked her to write op-ed”).

The article traces the origins of an op-ed that appeared in STAT, the respected medical blog published by the Boston Globe,  headlined  “You can complain about TV drug ads. They may have saved my life.” Health News Review managing editor Kevin Lomangino found that a public relations firm working for Gilead, a pharmaceutical company that makes the hepatitis C drug Harvoni, had reached out to a patient named Deborah Clark Duschane and asked her to write about her experience with drug ads.

Lomangino quotes Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University, who called the situation a “breach of trust.”

“The whole point of ghostwriting is to hide the hand of an actor — to make an industry position seem like it’s coming from an unaffiliated individual,” Seife said. “That’s deception. It’s meant to disarm the natural skepticism that we have when an industry makes self-serving statements. And when someone tries to disarm our skepticism, well, it ain’t good.”

As a professional ghostwriter, who has been hired by public relations professionals to work with authors on op-eds that have run in respected publications, I disagree.

I would argue that the whole point of a ghostwriter is to help someone with an important or interesting perspective to step onto some of the world’s most prominent journalistic stages and contribute to an urgent policy debate, with a well-crafted argument that might actually succeed in persuading intelligent readers to change their minds, adopt a position, support a cause or even part with some of their hard-earned dollars.

Sometimes, believe it or not, a prominent medical researcher, physician or clinician is not equally gifted as a writer.  This is also true of Nobel Prize winners, elected officials, captains of industry and lawyers—all of whose prose you can find on op-ed pages most days of the week.  When you see a politician’s or celebrity’s byline on a newspaper page, do you believe they wrote it all by themselves?  Why should it be any different for a doctor or patient writing about prescription drugs?

Every day, op-eds appear in print and online about which two things are true.  One is that they express a sincere point of view of a credible authority.  And two is that they advance the professional interest of someone else.

An op-ed promoting renewable energy may be beneficial to a maker of solar panels.  The opinion of an organic food grower may be good news for Whole Foods/Amazon.   A solution for traffic congestion will cause advocates for mass transit to take to Twitter.

Is the pharmaceutical industry entitled to a special category of outrage?  Do the billions of dollars at stake in the development and marketing of prescription drugs carve out a hypocrisy exemption other interests can’t claim?

For it’s hypocrisy that’s at work here, not greed and self-interest.  It is hypocritical for editors to think that the op-eds they print spring fully formed from the keyboards of their bylined authors when they know better than most how hard it is to write an intelligent paragraph.  It’s hypocritical for media critics to decry the hidden hand of public relations in op-ed columns when they understand that a public debate over urgent issues depends on the participation of stakeholders in those points of view, some of whom have budgets to spend.

It’s also hypocritical for authors to collect fees for opinion pieces that do not represent their own personal points of view or deeply held beliefs.  Fortunately for the reading public, by and large that doesn’t happen.

My job as a ghostwriter is to act as a collaborator with authors and a meditator between them and a larger audience.  An editor’s job is to evaluate a prospective op-ed and accept or reject it on its own merits—not because some PR person tried to “place” it.

In fact, I advise my clients to submit op-eds themselves, from their personal e-mail accounts. This practice may deprive PR firms from bragging rights to “deliverables” when justifying their fees, but I think it preserves the integrity of the relationship between author and reader.

Opinions are intensely personal, authentic and highly prized.  They can change, but they can’t really be bought.  Readers should be able to assume that the opinions they see in an op-ed represent the true beliefs of the author, and not the outcome of a transaction with the highest bidder.  That’s how journalism works.  (It may not be the way the internet works, but that’s another story).

It would be a scandal if PR firms could write a check to a prominent authority  and place his or her name on a ghostwritten piece that doesn’t reflect that person’s views.  But if communications professionals are involved in expressing authentic viewpoints of serious experts on urgent topics, and readers benefit from enjoyable and persuasive prose, it’s no harm, no foul.

William S. Klein is a professional ghostwriter. 

4 replies »

  1. First of all, I want to assure Kevin Lomangino that I am not a bot, a pseudonym or a figurehead. At least, I’m pretty sure I’m not (but I have seen Blade Runner, so I know nothing is ever certain…).

    There are scores of industries that benefit from public discourse and opinion articles that coincide with their business interests. As I ask in my article, why does pharma deserve a special level of opprobrium for engaging the services of PR professionals like me? Because they are a “multi-billion dollar” industry? Are the opinions and perspectives of an opinion-leader attached to a sliding scale linked to the stock market? How high, or how low, is the conflict of interest bar?

    I hope readers do read STAT’s new author guidelines (click on the “revised author agreement” within the third of the links Kevin Lomangino included in his comment)—they’re the equivalent of an editorial full body scan. It’s absurd to think that authors of op-eds, who, if they are paid at all might collect what Calvin Trillin famously described as “the high two figures” for their work, will subject themselves to this level of scrutiny.

    I definitely do not think that an op-ed might “inadvertently” benefit a third party—there’s a direct link between an author expressing an opinion in an op-ed and influencing the opinion of a reader. At least, I hope there is. That is very much the point. The art of asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas, my dictionary tells me, goes back to a guy named Socrates. I wonder who paid for his toga…

  2. Drugs are not ordinary products. The fact that the writer conflates drugs and presumably scientific publications with ordinary products or policy positions is what’s wrong with the Stat oped, and medical ghostwriting.

  3. The author of this piece (possibly William S. Klein, or was it written for him by a PR firm working on behalf of a pharmaceutical company?) uses faulty logic to justify deceiving readers. In so doing he demonstrates the truth of the old adage, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    First, the author suggests that I am against the publication of any op-ed that is “written with the participation of public relations professionals.” This is not true. Everyone needs an editor and sometimes that editing help comes from a PR company. There’s an important distinction to be made, however.

    In the examples that I wrote about, the PR company who helped with the writing was hired by a pharmaceutical company to represent the interests of the pharmaceutical company – not the interests of the writer. The published op-eds made no mention of the pharmaceutical companies’ involvement.

    When a PR firm, being paid by a drug company, comes up with the idea for an article and then helps craft the message of a patient or doctor whose name appears on the byline, this moves beyond the world of opinion and into the world of advertising/sponsorship. This is a company paying to have its opinion represented via a third party. At the very least, readers expect that such commercial involvement in the editorial process will be disclosed to them. And when it’s not, they will indeed consider it a “breach of trust” as Charles Seife pointed out.

    But don’t take my or Charles Seife’s word for it – you need only look at the outcry that this deception prompted among STAT’s readership, and STAT’s decision to correct one of the articles I wrote about, retract the other, and issue new guidelines for op-ed submissions – to know that readers thought this was a dirty trick.




    The author soft-pedals the ethical violations here by claiming they are unavoidable. He points to examples where op-eds written by one individual will “advance the professional interest of someone else.”

    Again, it’s one thing if the “someone else” is inadvertently helped by the op-ed message. It’s quite another if that “someone else” is a multi-billion dollar drug company who has paid to have their interests represented in the op-ed via an editor or ghostwriter.

    The distinctions here are crucial. Unfortunately, some PR people see it as their job to gloss over such distinctions and “spin” any story to their (or their client’s) advantage. STAT and its discerning readers saw through the deception. I think readers of The Health Care Blog will, as well.

  4. Thanks, William. Fun reading.
    I’ve always thought there were ghostreaders also, i.e. opinion-maker docs who maybe get a little dough for explaining new drugs and research thereof to their colleagues, to boost use. Just a guess. No hard evidence.