On Ghostblogging, West Berlin, and the Internet

by Jamison Koehler on January 31, 2010

As a college student in the 1970s, I visited East Berlin with some friends.  One night, after returning back into West Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, we were at a pizza parlor when we witnessed a fist-fight outside a nightclub next door.  I had never seen anything like that before, and was shocked by the brutality of the fight.  I kept wondering when the police would arrive but they never did.  Instead, the two guys eventually tired of the fight and, dusting themselves off and checking their wounds, each went his own way.  Sitting there in disbelief, it occurred to me that, through this still divided city, I had just witnessed the very difference between East and West during the Cold War era.

East Berlin was completely devoid of any life.  With the shell of buildings on every block still bombed out over thirty years after the Second World War, there were few cars, no food in the grocery stores, no newspapers on the street, no books in the bookstore.  I don’t think I saw a single child playing on the street while I was there.  But there was a police officer on every corner.

West Berlin, by contrast, was alive and thriving with neon lights and the pulse of traffic on its streets. But, with the prostitutes on every corner and fist-fights outside night clubs, it was also decadent; living proof of what human beings will do if left to their own devices.

The Internet, I think, is like West Berlin.

There has been another dust-up on one of Mark Bennett’s blogs, Social Media Tyro, that reminded me of that night in West Berlin.  Specifically, in an entry entitled “Rent-a-Brain with GhostBloggers,” Bennett complained about lawyers who hire professionals to write their legal blogs for them:

“When a client hires a lawyer, more than the results or the face or the résumé, he’s paying for the lawyer’s knowledge, intellect and heart—attributes that good writing reveals and ghostwriting falsifies. Hiring a ghostwriter to write your blog (like some of the people here using a ghostwriter “to enhance their credibility”) is no more ethical than subscribing to TheWholeGhostPackage.com.”

One of the ghostwriters wrote to Bennett asking him to delete the link to the lawyer testimonials of the service, fearing the link would embarrass the lawyers who have chosen to use the ghostwriting service.  The writer apparently did not take time to find out anything about Bennett.  Bennett not only refused, but he posted the letter as well, along with his response:

“It is crucial that those with ultimate legal and ethical responsibility for online marketing (the lawyers) realize that they have some skin in the game. Some lawyers feeling that it is okay to have a “front man” causes many of the problems with unethical online marketing: they trust a non-lawyer to do it for them, and wind up paying for spam, splogging, or ghostblogging. I suspect that when lawyers realize that they might be called to public account for the things they delegate to others (Outsourcing Marketing = Outsourcing Ethics), they give a lot more thought to their marketing choices.”

As I have mentioned before, I am a loyal reader of Bennett’s blogs, but I don’t agree with him on this one, or with Scott Greenfield who joined the fray with his own post.  Greenfield suggests that, as a newcomer to the blawgosphere, I may be naïve.  Writes he, in response to my comment on his site:

“People like Bennett, [Brian] Tannebaum and I were here before the marketers tried to turn this place into just another marketing scam.  You’re new.  You haven’t watch the onslaught of scams that have worked their way through the blawgosphere over the past few years,  They taint us all.  We are accused by people we don’t know of being a part of the deception, the manipulation of the public, who attribute motives to our blawging based upon what the shills scream, that this is all done to lie to potential clients and suck the last dime out of their pocket.”

Maybe so.  And, yes, I am a newcomer.  But I am against this type of public humiliation, or “cyberbullying” as someone has termed it.  I also do not agree with Bennett and Greenfield that using a ghostwriter is necessarily dishonest or unethical.  For one thing, I think they underestimate the sophistication of most people using the Internet.  Most people visiting a lawyer’s website will be able to distinguish between the canned language of a hired writer and the distinctive voice of a lawyer, such as Bennett or Greenfield, writing for himself.

People say that, after years of writing for President Kennedy, Ted Sorensen sounded more like Kennedy than the President himself.  Ted Sorensen wrote in his autobiography that even he can no longer remember which of the famous lines were penned by him and which of them were written by Kennedy.  If Sorensen doesn’t care, why should we?  The words are still Kennedy’s words.  It was he who adopted them.  It was he who uttered them.  And it was he who was ultimately responsible for them.

But, obviously, there is more going on here than just ghost-blogging.  As Greenfield says, it is also about the Internet.  It is about the growing recognition within the legal community of the growing importance of the Internet with respect to marketing.  It’s about the influx of new blogging lawyers such as myself who are clogging up cyberspace.

Elsewhere on his website, in a section called “About Lawyer Websites,” Greenfield writes that it has been painful for him to “scan the internet and see websites of attorneys claiming to be the best in their field when no one has ever heard of them”:  “Apparently, these attorneys put their resources into paying search engines so that their websites pop up first rather than into representing their clients or perfecting their skills as an attorney.  This is a sad commentary on the legal profession.”

Again, maybe so.  I have complained myself about the endless spam comments I receive on this blog and the endless phone calls from hucksters trying to sign me up for a search engine optimization program.

At the same time, I think this trend is inevitable.  Policing the blawgosphere and calling out specific lawyers on what are still debatable ethical issues seems to me, as I wrote on Greenfield’s site, paternalistic and futile.  As I witnessed in West Berlin, people are going to do what they are going to do.  And I’m not so sure that is always a bad thing.

8 Comments on “On Ghostblogging, West Berlin, and the Internet

  1. I remember going through Checkpoint Charlie as a student in the 70s too. It was a memorable experience, but I’m not sure it serves as the basis for a philosophy.

    Trends happen. We could all be wearing doubleknit polyester leisure suits today, but, thankfully, we’re not. We get to pick and choose which trends are worth following and which should be fought. Watching lawyers turn themselves into used car salesmen, or perhaps streetwalkers is a better analogy, is a trend worth fighting. We may not win, but I would rather lose fighting on the side of honor and integrity than sit out the fight scratching my head.

  2. You may want to research the definitition of “cyberbullying” before you throw it around and accuse your brethren of acting as such. Additionally, if you as a new blogger feel that “policing the blawgosphere and calling out specific lawyers on what are still debatable ethical issues seems to me, as I wrote on Greenfield’s site, paternalistic and futile,” then don’t spend your time letting others know that there are scum among us. Plenty of lawyers sit back and pretend like all of this is OK. No need for you to jump in and take a stand on the scum that pollute the internet, they may get mad at you and complain that you are “cyberbullying” them.” I realized long ago that it’s not about the profession anymore, it’s about Google, and positioning.

    There is nothing debatable about these issues, you either are the author of the material on your blog, or you’re paying somene to write for you for the purpose of appearing as if its you. Kennedy wasn’t a lawyer bound by the rules of professional conduct. He was a politician – someone trying to convince the public he was the answer to their prayers.

  3. Scott: Thank you for the thoughtful comment. As always, a slightly lighter touch. It is an honor to have you posting on this site.

    Brian: Thank you as well. I may not understand the full implications of the term “cyberbullying.” But I did not intend to call anyone scum, certainly not Mark Bennett or Scott Greenfield. Appreciating the debate they started, I was merely participating.

  4. Jamie,
    Thank you for opening the debate on this topic – I wrote about it as well. I thought that your post had a professional tone to it and though I don’t agree with all of it, I think that the disclosure (I don’t think it’s bullying) of individual lawyers’ practices is a topic that needs to be discussed. I commented further on your post and the others at MyShingle.

  5. Whether ghostblawging is unethical may well be debatable, but I am still waiting for the counterargument that takes into account lawyers’ special responsibilities. Using a ghostblogger is (by definition) claiming as one’s own intellectual property that is not. Using a ghostblawger is billed (by those hawking the service) as a way to increase credibility. All analogies to fields other than the law fail because a) what we are selling is our very capacity to think and express our thoughts; and b) we have ethical duties that nobody else has.

    When you have had people steal your intellectual property to build their own credibility, when you realize that lawyers are paying people to pollute your comments with spam, when you have (most importantly) had clients’ mommas tearfully tell you that they trust you because they have read everything you ever wrote on your blog, I suspect that you may come around to my way of thinking, ethically and aesthetically. Meanwhile, I’m secure in my assessment of the ethics of using a ghostblogger, and unrepentant.

    Whether lawyers should publicly call out other lawyers who are cheating (ethical violations) or polluting (aesthetic violations) on line is a question that wouldn’t suffer from public discussion (five-word answer: general deterrence requires hurting feelings). I’m sure that Scott Greenfield, Brian Tannebaum, Eric Turkewitz, and the bloggers named in Eric’s post can easily defend their positions against all comers, as can I.

    This is not purely an intellectual exercise to us, by the way. At least four of us have attracted the attention of a psychopathic cyberstalker—a genuine convicted rapist sex offender—for our troubles revealing out-of-control unethical lawyer marketing.

    But Rent-A-Brain is a strange place to start the discussion of whether those funding unethical marketing should be named and shamed. In that post I didn’t name any of the lawyers responsible for the ghostblogging; I merely linked to the page where they unabashedly named themselves as having paid someone to “increase their credibility.” Anyone who thinks linking to a page of testimonials is “cyberbullying” is—with all due respect—a damn fool.

    I did later name the lawyers, but that was only when the ghostblogger asked me to remove that link and my O.D.D. kicked in—I don’t know what she was thinking.

  6. You want naive? Here I am. I’d never even heard of ghost-blogging until I read this post. Of course, that means I’ve not spent much time thinking about the ethics of it.
    However, it makes me think of another trend in a field that I am thinking about all the time — fiction writing. There has been a recent trend towards novels authored by famous people, but actually written by ghost writers. Both smack of intellectual dishonesty, frankly. It just seems like in both cases you are representing to the world that you have produced the work in question, when you have not. I will have to read more about it because to my simple mind the issue seems pretty simple and uncontroversial.

  7. Mark: Thanks for coming on to the site. I’ve been called a damn fool by people of much lesser intellect so I guess this is a step up for me. Thanks for commenting. I respect your views.

    Mr. Confidential: Good to see you on the site.

  8. Jamison:

    The essential problem with the growing wave of crap is that it serves to define ethics downward. Some folks are trying to stem that tide.

    And welcome to the blogosphere. I don’t agree with some of what you said, but you write with a good voice.

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