Joe McGinniss, Pioneering Journalist Who Courted Controversy, Dies At 71

Joe McGinniss, a groundbreaking journalist whose book The Selling of the President 1968, prophetically foreshadowed how political candidates have come to be marketed like consumer products, has died after a two-year battle with prostate cancer.

A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, McGinnis was 71 when he passed away Monday afternoon at UMass Memorial Medical Center in his hometown.

Joe McGinniss was only 26 when he burst on the journalistic scene with his Selling of the President book. Published in 1969, the work chronicled how then-candidate Richard Nixon and his campaign team used techniques from the field of advertising and marketing — the same methods used to sell deodorant, hamburgers and new cars — to turn the widely reviled Nixon into a widely appealing figure for the American public.

At the time. Joe McGinniss was a young reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He “sneaked in under the radar screen, presenting himself to Nixon’s men as such an insignificant fly on the wall that they never thought to swat him away,” wrote historian David Greenberg in his own book about Nixon.

In contrast to traditional journalists of the era, who affected a neutral tone of detached omniscience, Greenberg wrote, “McGinniss was an emissary from the New Journalism, with his countercultural accents, youthful iconoclasm, and nonchalant willingness to bare his left-leaning political views.”

A member of Nixon’s campaign team in 1968 and a character in McGinniss’s landmark work of political reportage, Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes said that the work of Joe McGinniss, “changed political writing forever.”

“We differed on many things, but he had a good heart,” Ailes said Tuesday.

But other Joe McGinness subjects were not as forgiving, and McGinniss never made it his business to soothe the feelings of people he wrote about.

Author and pioneering journalist Joe McGinniss.

In the most contentious episode of his career, Joe McGinniss was sued by the subject of his 1983 bestseller Fatal Vision. Former Green Beret Captain Jeffrey MacDonald was in prison for the murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters in February of 1970. MacDonald professed his innocence, claiming the killings were committed by a group of stoned hippies, chanting “kill the pigs” and “acid is groovy.”

Occurring just five months after the notorious Manson Family killings of actress Sharon Tate and others in Los Angeles, McDonald’s story seemed to fit a pattern.

But meeting MacDonald in 1979, McGinniss soon became convinced that the Green Beret was, in fact, guilty. In his lawsuit, which was settled out of court, MacDonald said that Joe McGinniss took him into his confidence by pretending to believe in his innocence even after he had changed his mind.

The controversy did not end with the lawsuit. New Yorker magazine writer Janet Malcolm penned an article, later published as a short book, condemning Joe McGinniss as a “confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse,” a problem she said was endemic to the journalistic profession.

McGinniss countered that it was MacDonald, whom he portrayed as a sociopath, who attempted to use “cons and lies” to manipulate him, the reporter.

MacDonald, now 70, continues to maintain his innocence and has found a number of high-profile backers. But Joe McGinniss never wavered, writing in 2012, “every court that has considered the case — including the United States Supreme Court — has upheld that verdict in every respect. MacDonald is guilty not simply beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any doubt.”

He most recently courted controversy, while at the same time proving that age had not dulled his willingness to go to any length for a story, by moving into an Alaska house next door to Sarah Palin as he researched a biography of her, The Rogue, that in 2010 became final bestseller for Joe McGinniss.

Top image Via Anchorage Daily News

Second Image: Nancy Doherty / Facebook