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The Journalist and the Murderer ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction

    Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that
    what he does is morally indefensible.  He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity,
    ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.  Like the
    credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone,
    so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book
    appears--his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their
    temperaments.  The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know";
    the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
        -Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

    My only obligation from the beginning was to the truth.
        -Joe McGinniss

This book, based on a two-part 1989 essay for The New Yorker, "Reflections: The Journalist and the Murderer", is itself one of the most remarkable pieces of journalism ever written.  It is so drenched in irony and double meanings that it ends up completely subverting the, admittedly rather naive, idea that journalism and journalists are capable of impartially conveying the truth, let alone that they are trustworthy, and implicitly raises serious questions about the exalted position we grant to the Press in our Constitutional scheme.

Malcolm's ostensible topic is the libel suit that convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald filed against author Joe McGinniss, following the publication of the bestselling book Fatal Vision.  MacDonald, a former Green Beret doctor, accused of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters nine years earlier, had given McGinniss, best known for his insider expose The Selling of the President : 1968, unprecedented access to the workings of his defense team, and in exchange received a portion of the advance and profits on the book.  McGinniss determined early on in the process that MacDonald, his de facto partner, was probably guilty, but continued to play along with his protestations of innocence in order to maintain access and cooperation.  It thus seems to have come as a genuine surprise to MacDonald when the finished book portrayed him as a cold-blooded psychopath and so he sought damages from McGinniss for perpetrating a fraud.  The ensuing trial featured testimony from Joseph Wambaugh and William F. Buckley Jr., defending the right of the journalist to mislead his subjects, but ended with a jury hung five to one in MacDonald's favor, to the journalistic community's utter shock.

Janet Malcolm was one of a number of fellow journalists who had been approached by McGinniss's defense team to write about this threat to their profession.  She appears to have been the only one to take up the mantle, and her take on events ended up being far from flattering to McGinniss.  She makes it clear that McGinniss did indeed mislead MacDonald and the members of his defense team.  Most damning are a series of letters between the two men in which McGinniss ingratiates himself with the man he knew by then to be the killer, and solicits his assistance in stifling other authors who were trying to write about the case.

Malcolm uses the relationship between journalist and murderer to explore the ethical dilemma inherent in journalism : that the writer has different, often conflicting, interests to those of his subject.  Even as the subject tries to manipulate the journalist into presenting their side of the story, the journalist may well be picking that story apart and using the subject's own words to hang him.  The moral questions that this raises for the journalist are obvious, but as Malcolm says  :

    What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject's blind
    self-absorption and the journalist's skepticism.

Journalism, to be effective then, very nearly requires this level of duplicity on the part of its practitioners.  To get their story, they must frequently lie--whether they are lies of commission or omission the people with whom they speak when assembling the story.

As you read this book and consider what MacDonald's reaction would have been had McGinniss been totally truthful with him, these journalistic untruths emerge as natural, even necessary, though McGinniss perhaps crosses an imaginary line at a few points.  But stop for a moment and think about how remarkable this aspect of journalism really is...after all, while the Constitution itself raises the Press to an elevated status, recognizing that it is as important to the functioning of a free society as religion, speech, assembly, the right to bear arms and various criminal rights, none of the branches of government is predicated on deceit, nor are any of the other protected rights.  Should our laws really protect a "right" of journalists to lie ?

Consider too the premises which underlie our current, nearly absolutist, jurisprudence on and public understanding of "freedom of the press."   We have made it almost impossible for the press to libel anyone; as long as they are "public figures," they are pretty much fair game.  Government can not stop the press from printing information, no matter how damaging its publication might be to the national interest.  We tolerate a level of intrusion into people's private lives which makes journalists barely distinguishable from stalkers.  And what is the trade off that we expect from all of this : that somehow these freedoms will enable the press to bring us "the truth."  The press is justifiably held in fairly low esteem by the public, but that same public still, on some level, assumes that at the end of the day the practices we find so contemptible will be vindicated by allowing the press to supply us with an, at least marginally, unbiased record of events.

Malcolm's book calls even this basic assumption into question.  There are many versions of what happened in just this case, but take only those of MacDonald, McGinniss and Malcolm and ask yourself how we, the casual readers who are not immersed in the details of the case, can hope to unravel the differences among their versions.  MacDonald obviously has the utmost interest in portraying his own innocence.  McGinniss, it is gradually revealed, has complex psychological, financial, and professional reasons for presenting a story of MacDonald's guilt.  Comes now Malcolm, our impartial arbiter, to sift through the facts, settle the disputes, and tell us what really happened.  She seems like a reliable guide, mostly because of the sheer relish with which she castigates her own profession.  If she comes across as too smitten with MacDonald, a tad holier-than-thou with McGinniss, and entirely too enamored of Freudian analysis, these are faults we're mostly willing to forgive because we think she's trying her best to give an honest account of what happened.

And there matters might have lay, except for the stunning postscript to the story; one that it is not too much to say left me feeling almost violated.  For it turns out that even as she was writing this story, Malcolm was herself being sued by the subject of another one of her stories.  Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a notorious apostate from Freudianism, brought suit against her for a story she wrote about him in The New Yorker, alleging that certain quotes attributed to him were either manufactured out of whole cloth or condensed and taken out of context.  Personally, I'm a fan of Masson, precisely because he is a debunker of Freud, but the merits of his claim are immaterial.  The real issue here is that there is a necessary subtext to the MacDonald/McGinniss story as it reflects on the Malcolm/Masson story.  Malcolm, who was rather severely taken to task ny fellow journalists on this point after the The New Yorker essays appeared, denies it in the Afterword to the book :

    The notion that my account of this case is a thinly veiled account of my own experience of being
    sued by a subject not only is wrong but betrays a curious naïveté about the psychology of
    journalists. The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timorousness. Where the
    novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the
    shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous athleticism -- which is the novelist's daily task --
    of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world. The journalist confines himself to the
    clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others. Precisely because
    MacDonald's lawsuit had no elements in common with Masson's did I feel emboldened to write
    about it (and, incidentally, was I, as a defendant, able to position myself so as to view a plaintiff's
    case with sympathy).

God only knows what that all even means : it's little more than denial and psychobabble.  Her status as a defendant, accused of betraying a subject's trust, must have had some impact on the way she approached the MacDonald case, how she read the evidence, the interpretation she gave to McGinniss's actions, and the conclusions she reached.  For her not to tell the reader about this conflict of interest is simply dishonest.  And so the final irony of the book turns out to be that Janet Malcolm's own lie of omission ends up being the final proof that journalists and journalism are far less reliable than we give them credit for being, are ultimately little more than the product of the same types of bias and self-interest that they so often seek to expose in their subjects.  This lesson is no less valuable for coming at the author's expense, but it does diminish what has come before.  This is a great book, both for what Malcolm has explicitly written about the profession of journalism and for what her example unintentionally reveals about it, a cautionary tale about the dangers of trusting to freely in the value of even good journalism.


Grade: (A+)


Janet Malcolm Links:
    -REVIEW : Janet Malcolm: The Genius of the Glass House, NY Review of Books
               Julia Margaret Cameronís Women an exhibition at the Art Institute of
               Chicago, September 19, 1998-January 10, 1999; the Museum of Modern
               Art, New York, January 27-May 24, 1999; the San Francisco Museum of
               Modern Art, August 27-November 30, 1999., Catalog of the exhibition by
               Sylvia Wolf, and others
    -REVIEW : Janet Malcolm: It Happened in Milwaukee, NY Review of Books
               Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment by Jane Gallop
    -REVIEW : Janet Malcolm: The Real Thing, NY Review of Books
               Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New
               Orleans reproduced from prints made by Lee Friedlander, introduction
               by Susan Sontag, and interviews edited by John Szarkowski
    -REVIEW : of THE LONG WAIT And Other Psychoanalytic Narratives. By M. Masud R. Khan (Janet Malcolm, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Bloomsbury Recalled By Quentin Bell (Janet Malcolm, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of JACQUES LACAN The Death of an Intellectual Hero. By Stuart Schneiderman (Janet Malcolm, NY Times Book Review)
    -PROFILE : Brilliant Careers : Janet Malcolm : In her relentless pursuit of the truth she's left a few bodies in her wake, but isn't that part of a journalist's job? (Craig Seligman , Salon)
    -PROFILE : Janet Malcolm explores the lurid obsession with Sylvia Plath (Andrea Sachs, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Thou shalt not concoct thy quote : Supreme Court decides on the rules of the quotation game  : Masson v. New Yorker Magazine reversed an earlier ruling that the quotes attributed to
Jeffrey Masson by Janet Malcolm were allowabIe. (Steve Weinberg, FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics)
    -ESSAY : My Critic's Cloudy Vision  (Joe McGinniss, April 3, 1989, NY Times)
    -EDITORIAL : Journalists - And Con Artists (NY Times, March 19, 1989)
    -ARTICLE : Writers Mobilizing Against Restrictions On Using Quotations (ROGER COHEN, NY Times, February 20, 1991)
    -ESSAY : The Biographer and The Murderer (James Atlas, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Stranger Than Fiction (James Atlas, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : When Fact Is Treated as Fiction (JAMES ATLAS, NY Times Book Review, July 24, 1994)
    -ESSAY : The Debate on Suck Up Journalism : Should Reporters Grovel to Alleged Killers for Scoops?  (David J. Krajicek, APB News)
    -ARCHIVES : "janet malcolm" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "janet malcolm" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER By Janet Malcolm (Fred W. Friendly, NY Times Book Review)
    -RESPONSE : To the Editor (Janet Malcolm, NY Times Book Review, April 1, 1990)
    -REVIEW : of The Journalist and the Murderer  By Janet Malcolm (Tracy Sorensen)
    -REVIEW : of The Silent Woman Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes By Janet Malcolm (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE SILENT WOMAN Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes. By Janet Malcolm (Caryn James, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of IN THE FREUD ARCHIVES. By Janet Malcolm (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of IN THE FREUD ARCHIVES By Janet Malcolm (1984) (Harold Bloom, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PSYCHOANALYSIS: The Impossible Profession. By Janet Malcolm (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of PSYCHOANALYSIS The Impossible Profession. By Janet Malcolm (Joseph Adelson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Purloined Clinic Selected Writings By Janet Malcolm (1992) (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE CRIME OF SHEILA McGOUGH By Janet Malcolm (1999) (Margaret Talbot , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Joyce Carol Oates: The Case of the Canned Lawyer, NY Review of Books
               The Crime of Sheila McGough by Janet Malcolm
    -REVIEW : of The Crime of Sheila McGough by Janet Malcolm (Jesse Berrett , City Pages)
    -REVIEW : of The Crime of Sheila McGough (Steve Weinberg, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of The Crime of Sheila McGough (Michael Ariens, ICE)
    -REVIEW : of The Crime (Peter Rose, The Age)
    -REVIEW : The Crime of Sheila McGough by Janet Malcolm (Anthony Julius, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW : of The CRIME OF SHEILA McGOUGH By Janet Malcolm (Hardy Green, Business Week)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY : My Critic's Cloudy Vision  (Joe McGinniss, April 3, 1989, NY Times)
    -EDITORIAL : Journalists - And Con Artists (NY Times, March 19, 1989)
    -ESSAY : McGinniss vs. Little, Brown: Publisher avoids the "s" word (CRAIG OFFMAN, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (Craig Offman, Salon)

    -LETTER : To the Editor (Janet Malcolm, NY Times Book Review, July 8, 1984)
    -ARTICLE : Appeals Court Turns Down Suit Against Author (ALBERT SCARDINO, NY Times, August 5, 1989)
    -REVIEW : of THE ASSAULT ON TRUTH Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Anthony Storr, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of LOST PRINCE The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. Translated and introduced by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (1996) (Steven Marcus, NY Times Book Review)