The Journalist and the Murderer

It has been almost a year since The New Yorker published Janet Malcolm’s infamous first sentence, the one that began her exploration of the relationship between journalists and their subjects. Do you remember it? ”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.” It was that sentence and the paragraph that followed (”He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity…and betraying them without remorse”) that sent the journalism profession into a tizzy. The case she then went on to dissect, that of Jeffrey MacDonald, who had been accused of murdering his wife and children, and the writer Joe McGinniss, whose best-seller Fatal Vision was written at the invitation of MacDonald’s defense team, did indeed seem to be a bald example of a journalist ”preying on people’s vanity” and then ”betraying them without remorse.” Nonetheless, her articles provoked angry denials, panel discussions ad nauseum, and, in general, the sort of self-justifying pitter-patter people inevitably resort to when they feel besieged.

Now The Journalist and the Murderer is being published as a book, and that first sentence is still there, alas, and I have no doubt that the profession will once again feel justified in collectively dismissing her. Too bad. It takes a real effort to get past that sentence and the attitude it embodies — the astonishing self-righteousness; the withering contempt for the craft that Malcolm herself practices; the messianic hyperbole. But if yocan strip away the attitude, you’ll see that the journalist-subject relationship is well worth exploring, filled as it is with mutual manipulation, mundane hypocrisies, and utterly false camaraderie. To anyone who has ever wondered, ”Why do people talk to reporters?” there are some shrewd and intelligent answers here.

It is true, of course, that Malcolm stumbled upon a particularly unsubtle variant of the journalist-subject relationship, but that is part of what gives the story its compelling, almost morbid, quality. For one thing, Jeffrey MacDonald had entered into a contractual arrangement with McGinniss, so their falling out had an overlay of a business deal gone bad. For another, MacDonald discovered McGinniss’ deception in a staggeringly gruesome way: For several years McGinniss had explicitly led MacDonald to believe that he would be exonerated by the book; it was only during an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, to which MacDonald had agreed to publicize the book, that he discovered his biographer actually thought he was a psychopath. And finally, of course, Malcolm had the smoking gun, the now-famous letters McGinniss wrote MacDonald while working on the book, proclaiming in the most profuse and embarrassing ways his supposed belief in MacDonald’s innocence. Even the second time around, the excerpts of these letters are excruciating to read.

I was bowled over when I first read Malcolm’s pieces in The New Yorker. Perhaps this speaks to my own feelings of guilt about subjects I’ve treated badly, feelings shared, I’m guessing, by almost anyone who has written lengthy pieces of nonfiction. At the least, I was glad to see that someone had finally broached a subject that had heretofore resided in journalism’s subconscious, and had done so with the kind of unblinking seriousness that always characterizes Malcolm’s work.

I can’t say I feel quite so enthralled by this book. As slim as it is, it now comes encumbered with an awful lot of baggage. As you’re reading, the memory of McGinniss’ many defenders railing about Malcolm’s own alleged sins bubbles up, as does Malcolm’s well-publicized dispute with one of her previous subjects. (Her defense, published in a short afterword, is more annoying than convincing.)

One can’t help thinking that Malcolm herself has felt some of that same baggage. That hard, hyperbolic first paragraph remains untouched, it’s true, but the ending has been rewritten. In the original New Yorker article, she closed by quoting an extremely harsh judgment of McGinniss’ motives — a judgment that implicates all of journalism as well. In the book, however, her ending has been softened, tempered, perhaps, by her second thoughts about the value of the work she does. ”What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality,” she writes, ”is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism.” Then she adds, in a sentence utterly at odds with the rest of the book, ”Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.” This last banal thought will strike any journalist as self-evident. And what Malcolm seems finally to be facing in her new ending is another self-evident fact: for journalism to have any value at all, a journalist can’t worry about whether he has treated his subject well or badly. What matters is whether he has told the truth as he has come to understand it. Hewing to that ideal is what allows journalists to sleep at night, even after committing their treacheries. This is true, I would guess, even of Janet Malcolm. B

The Journalist and the Murderer
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