Don vs. Joe: the fight over Anonymous

January 6, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

When the novel Primary Colors was published in 1996, it caused a sensation inside the core of political and journalistic elites from Washington to New York. The novel was a thinly veiled recounting of the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, and it was none too flattering to its protagonists, Bill and Hillary.

The novel was filled with insider information that only someone close to the campaign — inside, if you will — could know. 

The problem was that nobody knew who it was. The author was listed as Anonymous.

Speculation about the authorship ran wild. Everyone who was any denied writing it — even if the person had not asked. Everybody had a theory. But no one knew for sure.

That’s when New York Magazine called Don Foster. Foster was an English professor at Vassar who had gained a bit of fame for discovering an unattributed poem that William Shakespeare had written. Foster had done this with a straightfoward textual analysis, something literary historians do all the time. The underlying assumption of this kind of analysis is that everyone has a unique style of writing. A person uses words, sentences, paragraphs and punctuation in the same way no matter what they write. Their writing style is as unique as a fingerprint.

By the way, there’s no computer program that does this. It’s a matter of reading carefully and taking notes.

Discovering a style is not particularly difficult if you know what you are looking for, and Foster has proven that he knew. Thus, the editors at New York Magazine asked Foster to discover who Anonymous was. Foster was at first reluctant to get involved but finally consented to try. It didn’t take very long to identify the authors, and he describes the process in a chapter of his book titled Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous. (In case you plan to read the book, it’s by far the best chapter; the others are disappointing.)

The author of Primary Colors, Foster said, was Joe Klein, a writer for Time magazine.

Klein ungraciously admitted his lie but never offered any apology to the professor.

Klein, despite the lie, was able to continue his journalistic career and has been involved in several controversies over his reporting and writing. 

Klein’s response — instead of saying, “Ah, good job, professor. You got me.” — was to deny authorship and pour scorn on Foster and the fact that he was an English professor. Needless to say, Klein’s denials were so vociferous that many people believed, leaving Professor Foster in a bit of lurch. Klein continued to deny authorship for the next few months until he was outed by a Washington Post reporter who had incontrovertible evidence — handwritten notes to the publisher.


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