Ghostbusted: A Deeper Dive into the Ethics of the Trump Ghostwriter Confessional
For the first time in the history of the United States, ghostwriters are playing visible roles in a presidential election. Tony Schwartz, Donald Trump’s co-author for The Art of the Deal, is “telling all,” and Meredith McIver, a writer for the Trump Organization, is taking the hit for the plagiarized phrases in Melania Trump’s speech given at the Republican National Convention. As a ghostwriter, my initial reaction to both stories was Whaaaaat?
For me, The New Yorker story “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All” elicited shock and awe. Shock because the ghostwriter’s first rule is confidentiality. Awe because Schwartz is risking the lawsuits to do what he believes is essential for the welfare of the country and the world at large. The New Yorker quotes Schwartz as saying, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” Those are some powerful words, ones that now raise questions for all writers who collaborate.
During the same week that Schwartz stepped forward to warn us about Trump’s true character, another ghostwriter fell on the sword to protect Melania Trump from accusations that she plagiarized parts of a speech given by Michelle Obama. First, Melania said she’d written the speech herself, with a little help. But after the accusations, Meredith McIver came forward and said she’d written parts of the speech. She explained the mistake by saying that Melania had read passages from the first lady’s speech to her as examples of what she liked and that some of the phrases inadvertently ended up in the speech Melania gave at the RNC. Really?
Tim Hayes, a national award-winning speechwriter based in Pittsburgh, called the plagiarism incident “a ghastly distraction and one that should never have occurred.” McIver has written several full-length books for Trump, so make no mistake—this is a writer who knows what plagiarism is and has enough professional experience to avoid making that mistake. After the Melania Trump kerfuffle, Hayes referenced a comment Jimmy Fallon made on The Tonight Show: “Thank you, Melania Trump … for being a third wife, giving a first lady’s speech for the second time.”
Hayes said, “My professional credo comes down to: Speechwriters should be heard, not seen. We are the voices behind the throne, serving the communications and messaging needs of our clients. We are the invisible hand, creating mental pictures to advance ideas. We toil as the Easter Bunnies of communications—leaving wonderful gifts behind, and no one but our speaker ever knows.”
Despite believing that Trump would be a presidential train wreck, I’m wondering if Schwartz has crossed a line. Trump’s lawyer, Jason D. Greenblatt, believed he did and issued a cease-and-desist letter to Schwartz demanding that he send “a certified check made payable to Mr. Trump” for the millions of dollars in royalties that Schwarz received for writing the book.[i]
Elizabeth McNamara, Schwartz’s attorney, responded with a letter that essentially told Greenblatt to stuff it. According to McNamara, Schwartz isn’t breaking the agreement he had with Trump by expressing his opinion of Trump’s character. “In any event, the demands you make in the letter are without any foundation in law or fact,” her letter says. “Mr. Schwartz will not be returning any of the advance or royalties from the Book, and he has no intention of retracting any of his opinions about the character of the Republican nominee for the presidency, nor does he have any obligation or intention to remain silent about this issue going forward.” (ii)
Most of the non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) we sign at my firm, Windword Literary Services, for celebrities and other high-profile clients not only protect the author’s original material, but also say that we will not disclose the nature of the relationship we have with the author or the roles we play in the creation of the book.
Since Schwartz was the co-author of The Art of the Deal, his role was obvious: He wrote the book. Whether the courts believe he violated the confidentiality clause of his contract remains to be seen, but whatever they decide, there’s still the ethical question of whether ghosts should disclose what we witness as observers of our clients’ lives.
Dan Gerstein, founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters, concurs that Schwartz has the right to follow his conscience: “From what I can tell, Schwartz handled this pretty much the way I would have advised. The only thing I would have told him was to have his lawyer review his contract and whatever NDA he signed so he was fully aware of his potential liability once he went public.
“Ethics is the balancing of interests, expectations and obligations, and in this case I think Schwartz made a sound ethical decision, given the extreme circumstances. He feels that Trump is a danger to the country, based on his intimate experience working with him, and that he had an obligation to share his unique insights that—pardon the pun—trumped his promise of confidentiality.
“It’s a calculus similar to that of a priest or psychiatrist who’s ministering to or treating someone who they believe is a clear and present danger to themselves or the community. They’re bound in that situation to put the safety interest of the patient or the larger community over the expectation of privacy. Schwartz clearly thought carefully about the pros and cons of speaking out, and he decided the societal risks of not saying something outweighed the legal risks to himself.”
I agree. But, there are other nagging questions that aren’t so easily answered.
Truth Versus Perspective
When a writer is sharing an author’s story or message, how much positive spin—if any—is acceptable? If the author gets her facts wrong and we correct them, are we making the author look smarter or more informed than she actually is? If we write a sentence about the author’s frequently forgetting his wedding anniversary and he changes it to say he always remembers, are we co-conspirators in his white lie? Words matter. So to what code of ethics should writers who take their responsibility and their craft seriously adhere to?
When Schwartz wrote The Art of the Deal, he had no idea Trump might one day run for president, let alone bag the Republican nomination. He wasn’t worried that the Trump “character” he created in the book might someday have veto power, not to mention the nuclear code. I don’t fault him for that. And I don’t fault him for accepting a lucrative book deal when he was financially stretched.
In my first few years as a ghost, I ignored a hideous array of red flags, attributing them to paying my dues. Like the time I was watching an author’s media reel in her agent’s office. On the screen, the author was smiling and composed, telling the talk show host that we should always speak to our significant others with kindness and love. But out in hallway at that very same moment, the author was swearing at her husband. I should have run, but instead I agreed to do the book as a deep ghost.
Did she appear to be consistent, stable, and sane in the book that I went on to write? Yes. Was she? Based on what I witnessed while working with her, no. To write the book without going crazy myself, I compartmentalized, writing strictly from the perspective of the wise professional, pretending the hysterical woman on the other end of the phone line was her evil twin.
I still shudder a little when I think back on those dark days, but I’m grateful for the lesson. Don’t work with people you don’t like. If I could go back in time and share this lesson with Schwartz, I would. As it is, I can only hope that other ghosts consider the potential ramifications of, in Schwartz’s words, “putting lipstick on a pig.”
“What fascinates me,” says Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, “is how ghostwriting is turning out to be of key importance to this election. When you think of past candidates, they would have speechwriters for presidential-esque hyperbole—think ‘a thousand points of light.’ Now, for the first time, words—and those who wield them—are under the spotlight.”
These stories spotlight a quandary that ghosts are forced to individually address: Where’s the dividing line between depicting an author in his or her best light and creating a “character” that’s significantly wiser, kinder, or more respectable than the author we observe? I don’t know, but what I do know is that the invisibility cloaks are off.
Toni Robino is a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter/collaborator, content creator, and writing coach at Windword Literary Services, a leading writing and editing firm. Her clients include new and established authors, celebrities, and thought leaders.