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Joe McGinniss, Headline-Grabbing Author, Dies At 71


Journalist and best-selling author Joe McGinniss has died. The author of classic books about politics and true crime was 71 years old. He suffered from complications due to inoperable prostate cancer.

As NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik recalls, McGinniss courted controversy throughout his career.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The concept of hypocrisy is woven through Joe McGinness' work, the chasm separating our public and private selves. In his final book, a biography of Sarah Palin, McGinniss vacuumed up just about every damning fact and rumor he could find involving the former Republican vice presidential nominee - and her husband and family, too. In an interview with me in 2011, McGinniss explained why.


JOE MCGINNISS: She pushes them front and center. She tries to use as a fundamental aspect of her image, the sense that Sarah is a working mother of five great kids. These people are all - they do everything together. Look at her whole reality show. They travel Alaska together, and they go mining for gold and hunting caribou. And it's all fake. It's all fake. It's utterly fraudulent.

FOLKENFLIK: The book engendered much criticism, especially his decision to rent a house next door to the Palins. But then, McGinniss seemed to stoke heat throughout his career. McGinnis started as a sportswriter, and broke out as a brash columnist in Philadelphia when he set out to chronicle how presidential campaigns actually worked. He wrote "The Selling of the President 1968," and revealed Richard Nixon's campaign to be heavily focused on marketing and messages intended to mask the candidate's weaknesses.

JIM WARREN: The behind-the-scenes details of a political campaign, it's all now a daily staple of political journalism and successful websites like Politico.com. All that, by and large, constituted pretty new revelations.

FOLKENFLIK: Longtime political reporter and media critic Jim Warren, of the New York Daily News, says McGinniss' insights are now taken for granted.

WARREN: You know, a final irony of his passing, and his legacy, might be in how he helped to open that door to a pretty mysterious world and how now, we know far, far more than we ever did about American politics, but seem arguably to almost have less insight.

FOLKENFLIK: McGinniss later approached an Army doctor who faced charges of killing his wife and two daughters in Fort Bragg, N.C. McGinniss told Jeffrey MacDonald he believed his story of an attack at home by crazed hippies. The defense team gave the writer full access. His book "Fatal Vision" was riveting and damning, inspiring a TV movie.

JEFFREY MACDONALD: Well, I remember hearing my wife saying, Jeff, why are they doing this to me?

FOLKENFLIK: MacDonald, found guilty in the killings, sued McGinniss and received an out-of-court payment of $325,000. Janet Malcolm, of The New Yorker, accused McGinniss of betrayal, saying the case proved the deception underlying all journalism. McGinniss said he simply followed the evidence. Toward the end of his career, Joe McGinniss seemed to recognize his ups and downs, once saying he started at the top with such a hit that he avoided trying to match his early and heady success ever since.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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