Joe McGinniss, the political journalist and best-selling author, died Monday from complications of prostate cancer. He was 71.
McGinniss was best known for his breakout book "The Selling of the President," about the marketing campaign behind Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and for the controversial 1983 title "Fatal Vision."
McGinniss got his start with the Worcester Telegram in Worcester, Mass., where he went to school at the College of the Holy Cross. He soon moved onto the Philadelphia Bulletin and then the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he gained fame as a columnist and author.
For "The Selling of the President," McGinniss got access to Nixon’s presidential campaign leading up to the 1968 election. It opened the general public to the world of political marketing and shot McGinniss to the top of the New York Times bestseller list at the age of 26. That made him the youngest living writer to top the bestseller list.
The success of "The Selling of the President" allowed McGinniss to pursue book writing full time. He spent most of the 1970s working on a series of books, including "Going to Extremes," a memoir about a year spent exploring Alaska’s wilderness and culture.
In 1983 McGinniss published "Fatal Vision," his account of the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. MacDonald, an Army doctor, was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two children in a notorious case. McGinniss was given full access by MacDonald to his defense team throughout the trial. MacDonald was under the impression that McGinniss believed him, but instead he outlined his conclusion in "Fatal Vision" that MacDonald was indeed guilty.
MacDonald sued him for fraud and "Fatal Vision" has been a controversial subject in journalistic circles ever since. It was cited in a famous article “The Journalist and the Murderer” by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm. Malcolm argued that McGinniss breached moral lines by pretending to believe MacDonald’s account in order to keep seeing him.
McGinniss followed "Fatal Vision" with two other true crime books. He shifted focus in the 1990s with a book on the Massachusetts senator, "The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy," and a highly praised account of an improbable and inspiring Italian soccer team, "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro."
His last project once again brought him to the public eye. McGinniss returned to Alaska to write about then-Gov. and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008 and once again feeling inspired, he signed on to write an unauthorized biography that would be called "The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin."
In true McGinniss fashion, he rented a house next door to Palin in Wasilla in 2010 and dug into the small-town world that Palin grew up in. He suggested a number of things about Palin, including that she had had a premarital sexual relationship with NBA star Glen Davis and that she might not be the biological mother of her son Trig Palin. Palin too threatened to sue.
Whether or not McGinniss crossed the line by publishing unsourced material or by obtaining information by methods below “journalistic standards” is a debate for journalism classes for years to come, but he always stood by what he published.
His fascination with political identity and real world truth garnered him both praise and disapproval, but McGinniss never shied away from exposing what he saw as the naked truth in life, even if it meant being sued in the process.