How to (B)roil a Celebrity

Add outdated newspaper writing to issues of authorship, and stir

After The New York Times ran a story earlier this month about cookbook ghostwriters, some celebrities whose books were featured in the story took their beef with the Gray Lady to social media. The protesters, Gwyneth Paltrow and Rachael Ray, decried what they saw as an inaccurate assertion that they don’t write their own cookbooks, tweeting their desire for a correction and then discussing it on Ray’s show, where Paltrow made an appearance via Skype. The incident was rehashed as it unfolded by online media such as HuffPo and, which termed the tiff ghostwritinggate. The Times dismissed the critique by relying on the fact that the story, by Julia Moskin, does not explicitly state that the celebs did not do their own work.

The newspaper’s editors, who spoke through a Public Editor blog post, aren’t wrong, exactly. But in a broader sense, the Times’ response relies on oft-employed newspaper-speak, a sleight-of-keyboard where every word is picked as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does. But newspaper-speak hasn’t translated well to the blogging and aggregation media environment, where subtlety is glossed over in favor of language suited to search engine optimization.

“Rachael Ray alone has published thousands of recipes in her cookbooks and magazine since 2005,” Moskin writes. “How, you might ask, do they do it? The answer: they don’t.” They hints at Ray’s inclusion in the pack without overtly stating that she doesn’t author her own recipes. And of Paltrow, Moskin writes that ghostwriter Julia Turshen “is writing a second cookbook with Gwyneth Paltrow after their collaboration on ‘My Father’s Daughter.’” This does not say Turshen (who was in my college class and penned a fantastic commencement speech) wrote the books for Paltrow, but rather that it was a team effort. Maybe Paltrow composed aloud while Turshen transcribed—we weren’t there.

This careful wordsmithing is not preserved in the aggregating, blogging and tweeting process. Paltrow “fires back at Julia Moskin’s accusation that she used a ghostwriter,” trumpeted one ghostwritinggate post. “@nytimes Diner’s Journal gets it wrong- AGAIN. I celebrate & value stylists, photographers, editors. I also write my recipes alone,” tweeted Ray to her 572,000 followers. The takeaway in these tidbits isn’t “it’s occasionally unclear who is actually writing the cookbooks credited to celebrity authors,” but rather, “The Times says these famous women didn’t write their cookbooks,” whether or not that was the intended impression.

Perhaps it would better serve readers if newspapers—gasp!—adopted blogs’ tendency toward blatancy. Instead of skirting the point—Moskin writes that ghostwriters provide “assistance,” that they “document” what the celebrity does—she might write that it’s highly unlikely that the credited author wrote the book, but ghostwriter contracts forbid discussion of the process, so on-the-record confirmation of individual cases is impossible. (H/t to Sari Botton, who responded to the fracas at The Rumpus and discussed contract conventions for the industry.)

More explicit language use would give newspapers the best opportunity to shape discourse before it’s aggregated by sites whose superior mastery of click bait knocks newspaper links down the Google results page. Though this reporter admits she would be sad if a source “did not respond to calls or emails requesting a comment” no longer meant, to insiders, “she thinks the source is a jerk.”

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg.