Monday, June 24, 2013

The Takei To-Do, Take Two: The Ghosts Speak

Last week we asked our writers to boldly go where no ghost has gone before, to tell us whether they thought George Takei’s ghostwriter committed a major faux pas by revealing that he wrote some of the former Trekkie’s funny Facebook posts. The general verdict from our ghosts was, not surprisingly, largely critical: no matter the medium, ghost Rick Polito should have had his phaser set to silent.

Some of our ghosts, like speechwriter Bernard Lipsy, argued the traditional, absolutist line: “In my 35-year career at IBM, only my immediate colleagues knew for whom I wrote. Once the speaker opens his or her mouth, the words belong to that speaker and nobody else.” Echoing this sentiment, speechwriter Lisa Schiffren said, “It's always wrong to take credit for work that is supposed to come from the principal in question.”

Others were more conditional in their condemnation. Ghost and novelist Kerry Zukus said, “We don't know what was in the agreement [between Takei and Polito] or what went down behind the scenes,” but even without an agreement, “it should not be assumed that the ghost is free to brag about his or her work on a project. [He should] still ask permission from the client before telling the world.”

Sarah Wachter also said that consent was the key determinant. “When a ghostwriter decides to part the curtains and reveal himself, it should be done with the tacit consent of the client, and without divulging many details, keeping the statement general, casual, and understated. That’s what Polito did in his back-pedaling statement, saying: ‘I've had no direct contact with George. I've sent him some memes, as have other comedian types, and I was happy for the exposure.’”

But in the end, Liz Vance spoke for most of our ghosts when she said, “A ghost is a ghost, and shouldn't ever intentionally reveal that to the public.”

There was a much greater diversity of opinion about the ethical questions this episode raised for the new world of social-media ghosting.

Speechwriter Juli Branson suggested that the Takei case points to the dangers to and responsibilities of authors. “Social media has its own set of expectations from readers, who believe they are communicating directly with the person listed on the [social media] account,” she said. “Therefore, even if a celeb hires a ghostwriter, the celeb needs to be the one reading the posts and telling the writer how they would like to respond. If there is no connection between the celeb and the social media venue, isn't that like a speechwriter not just writing a speech, but also delivering it, and even saying they are the celeb?”

Other writers were softer on the scandal, suggesting that social media ghost-posting was something to be expected. Bookwriter Bob Fancher said, “I think the relevant question isn't the medium, but what the audience has a right to expect. I don't mind ghosting for corporate types or politicians or public office holders, because no one thinks they write their own stuff. Celebrities, it seems to me, fall into the same category. Maybe love letters and religious testimony shouldn't be ghosted. But celebrity Facebook comments? Really?”

In the end, some thought the most trenchant revelation from the whole hullabaloo was not about the morality, but the money. “I think the real embarrassment here is Takei paying just $10 for the postings, which have helped him resurrect his career and command decent appearance fees,” said Howard Rothman. “I'm not swayed by fact that the going rate for such work is appallingly low; it wouldn't be if people making a good living off this stuff offered fair remuneration.”

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