Ghostwriters, confidentiality, and desire for vindication

A clash between two rights characterizes every story you read in a nonfiction book.

You, the reader, have a right to the truth.

And the people you’re reading about have a right to privacy.

The author walks the narrow path between those rights. But it becomes even more challenging if the right to privacy is secured by contract — or by federal law.

Ghostwriters and national security

Every ex-president writes a memoir. Since most presidents are better politicians and leaders than writers, they usually have ghostwriters.

As Rebecca Davis O’Brien described yesterday in the New York Times, this causes national security problems, since much of what happens in the White House is protected as classified material.

Donald Trump showed a classified Iran war plan to a ghostwriter for his former chief of staff — to “set the record straight.”

Joe Biden read classified material from his own notebooks to his ghostwriter.

The reason was the same for both: they wanted to be portrayed as the hero (and profit from it). From the article:

For presidents and other major political figures, [Presidential Historian Douglas] Brinkley said, there is a point “when you switch from leadership to legacy mode.” He also sees the urge to hold onto records, and to write blockbuster memoirs about one’s tenure in office, as “part of the monetization of the presidency.”

In 2010, according to [Special Counsel Robert] Hur’s report, Biden documented a meeting about a possible book about his vice presidency and noted that “there were three plausible reasons” for writing one: “1. Defense — others will write and I want a record. 2. Future — who knows about 2016. 3. Profit — retirement.”

History belongs to all of us. Classified material belongs only to those have clearance. But when it comes to presidential ego, there’s a strong incentive to break the rules — and tell the story you want people to hear.

This conflict happens in corporate memoirs, too

I’d love to tell you about what I did as an analyst, when I met with all sorts of the most visible leaders in media and technology. But for the most part, I can’t, because those meetings were confidential and my employer had a strict, and strictly enforced, confidentiality agreement with our clients. Those agreements tie my hands even now, and unlike Trump and Biden, I obeyed the rules and didn’t take my files with me.

There was the meeting at one television network where the president of a major broadcast network goggled at a chart I showed about who skipped commercials in recorded programming. “Why does this interest you so much?” I asked. “It’s the first chart I’ve seen this year with our network at the top,” he responded, chagrined. Which network? Sorry, can’t say.

There was the prominent financial services CEO who profanely railed against the regulations that tied his hands in competitive situations. Which company? Sorry, can’t say.

If you read my book about writing business books, you’ll read about some authors who made disastrous decisions and cut corners with the truth. Which authors? I won’t say. They worked with me based on trust that I wouldn’t share their dirty laundry.

That’s why there will never be a memoir from me.

One of the most fascinating memoirs of the last ten years is Dan Lyons’ description of the venal behavior of his corporate bosses at HubSpot, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. Lyons’ managers never got around to getting him to sign the usual confidentiality agreement. And later, they got themselves in big trouble trying to get hold of the manuscript to see what he said about them.

One of the most honest memoirs I ever read (I also edited it) was Mitch Lowe’s book Watch and Learn: How I Turned Hollywood Upside Down with Netflix, Redbox, and Moviepass–Lessons in Disruption. Mitch tells the truth about everything, including his side of what went wrong at the doomed movie subscription startup Moviepass. There are still lawsuits going on between Mitch and federal regulators, so I wonder whether what he wrote is being cited as evidence.

Legal vs. ego

If you work for a corporation — or used to — and you’re writing about your experience, it’s crucial to get permission, especially if what you write could be construed as a violation of your confidentiality agreement, or your agreement to keep client information private.

If you work for, or used to work for, the government, there are plenty of other regulations, including document classifications, that apply.

And if you’re a ghostwriter, be careful that you don’t tangled up in these situations, or you’ll spend your time testifying — which tends not to pay very well. Don’t put your head in the sand. Ask your client about confidential information and what they (and you) are legally permitted to reveal.

And if you’re reading a memoir, remember that you’re only reading what falls into the intersection between what’s allowed to be shared and what your author thinks makes them look good. That’s just a small window into the truth of what actually happened.

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One Comment

  1. Just a curious observation: Neither Trump nor Biden needs more profit, from a memoir or any other source. Neither will ever have financial retirement worries of any ilk. Are they really seeking more dough to roll in? The testimony about Biden’s posted statement points to “yes.” Is there similar recorded “horse’s mouth” evidence from Trump?

    This post does point out the need to dot your I’s and cross your T’s with precision and wariness. This is not a genre to be glib about.