The book cover of Journalist and the. Murderer and a headshot of the author Janet Malcolm

The Journalist the Murderer

Journalism can only be done adversarially — or immorally.

So argues the 1990 book The Journalist the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, which was first a serialization the year before in New Yorker. The nonfiction book is today considered a seminal work in journalism ethics, and related fields. Though frequently referenced in other works I’ve read, I only now finished the short book.

Malcolm focuses on the relationship between a journalist named Joe McGinniss and a man named Jeffrey MacDonald, who was accused of murdering his wife and children. McGinniss wrote a 1983 bestselling book about the case, which then became a popular movie, but was later criticized for his handling of the relationship with MacDonald, resulting in a high-profile libel case. In short, McGinniss was accused of portraying himself as sympathetic to MacDonald but always planning a damning book. Malcolm takes this narrow example to draw wider conclusions, including the nature of truth and how it is represented in journalism.

Below find my notes for future reference.

My notes:

  • Her devastating first sentence: “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.
  • Author compares journalism to Milgram’s famous 1960s Yale study in which people are duped into electric shocking people, then later they are “dehoaxed.”
  • Eichmann dilemma: alongside ever greater advances, we still do such cruel things.
  • Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem book on Nazism alongside such intellectual output
  • Book’s subject Joe McGinniss takes Styron’s precious vacuum-packed crabmeat and makes crabmeat pie, the author argues this is just like journalism: “Stealing at the foundation of making”
  • “The writer ultimately tires of the subject’s self-serving story and substitutes a story of his own.” 20
  • Selective quote editing: McGinnisss edited a line “it is possible I had one diet pill at this time. I do not remember, and do not think I had one but it is possible .” He edited out “and do not think I had one.” This was from a letter the murderer had written. Is this ok?
  • Bestselling police-crime author Joseph Wambaugh was also solicited to write about the McDonald defense team. In his letter clarifying the rules, he wrote “it would be my story.” Making clear he isn’t writing for the murderer
  • “Every writer thinks someone else is working on his subject; it is part of the paranoid state of mind necessary for the completion of the infinitely postponable task of writing.” Janet Malcom (37)
  • Sources are often “oblivious of the notebook or tape recorder that is catching the words on which he is later to be impaired” (45)
  • William F Buckley and Wambaugh both testified in this trial
  • Wambaugh testified that while writing his famous book “The Onion Field” he told one of the murders that he believed he didn’t do it even though he knew he did. He made a distinction between an outright lie and an untruth which is “part of a device… to get at the actual truth”
  • In rebuttal, Attorney Bostwick said in his closing argument: He was “astounded that that would be set forth in a court room as being the kind of principle that writers or lawyers or jury should be guided by. We cannot do whatever is necessary. You have to do what is right.”
  • For the publicity he has to dispense, the journalist is “consequently treated with a deference out of proportion to his merits as a person” (58)
  • As every journalist will confirm, McDonald’s un-interestingness is not unusual at all. Phillip Roth’s novel “The Counterlife:” “if Henry was ever going to turn out to be interesting, I was going to have to do it.”
  • Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould and Truman Capote’s Perry Smith were rare “auto fictionalizers,” people so interesting that they established new journalism and the “nonfiction novel” that too many tried to replicate
  • Mask of sanity introduces psychopath
  • Dracula and Frankenstein are emblematic of Victorian Romance writing, of evil to explain goodness
  • “The concept of the psychopath is in fact an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil – it is merely a restatement of the mystery – and only offers an escape valve” (75)
  • Keith Elliot Greenberg, who wrote a story for Playboy, also testified: “I freedom of the press depends on the right to lie then it’s a freedom that ought not be protected.“
  • Eliot also charges Norman Mailer as someone who chases stories for fame
  • How important is the interview technique? The author expected her “Japanese” conversational style would do better than Keeler’s exacting newspaper approach with prepared questions. In the end she found no difference. “I learned the same truth about subjects that the analyst learns about patients: they will tell their story to anyone who will listen to it and the story will not be affected by the behavior or personality of a listener”
  • “McGinnis betrayed him and devastated him and possibly misjudged him but he didn’t invent him” 100
  • Wambaugh (lie vs untruth as a cop and a writer) in his nonfiction novels, invented dialogue to make it flow; He would get signed releases
  • McGinnis (who worked at the Inquirer btw) separated the reporting and the writing stages
  • In 1987, Joe McGinniss appeared with William F Buckley, who asked Abrams if it was ethically wrong to let a subject not know journalistic intentions; Abrams said most non journalists would “find it very offensive”
  • “People tell journalists their stories as characters and dreams deliver their elliptical messages: without warning, without context, without concern for how odd they will sound when the dreamer awakens and repeats them.” (114)
  • Author references the Dreyfus affair from 1894 in which a French soldier of Jewish descent was wrongly accused and imprisoned, aided by antisemitic press
  • “It is all too natural for people who have been wronged or humiliated —or feel they have been—to harbor the fantasy that a writer will come along on a white steed and put everything to rights. As Macdonald v McGinnis illustrates, the writer who comes along is apt to only make things worse. What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists. If the lesson of Macdonald v McGinnis were taken to heart by prospective subjects, it could indeed, as Kornstein maintained, be the end of journalism.”
  • “Of pleasurable reading experiences, there may be none greater than that afforded by a legal document written in one’s behalf”
  • In his biography of Gogol, Nabokov wrote: “It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (usually false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a “true story.” Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself?
  • In her afterword, the author says she was accused of using this book as a quiet confession related to her own lawsuit, incited by the inaccuracy of a March 21, 1989 New York Times story written by Alberto Scardino claiming she had admitted to fabricating notes when she had not.
  • The fiction writer is “master of his own house and may do what he likes in it;… But the writer of nonfiction is only a renter, it must abide by the conditions of his lease, which stipulates that he leave the house – and it’s name is Actuality – as he found it.” (153)
  • Unlike Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain: we do not speak in prose, as the tape recorder now shows
  • When a journalist undertakes to “a subject he has interviewed on tape, he owes it to the subject, no less than to the reader, to translate his speech into prose. Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform this sort of editing and rewriting that in life our ear automatically and instantaneously performs”
  • Writer or stenographer? Nothing that isn’t recorded is translated literally
  • “Fidelity to the subject’s thought and to his characteristic way of expressing himself is the sine qua non of journalistic quotation.”
  • Timorous journalists: ” “Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe.” (158)
  • Author writes of the journalism “I” as like Superman-Clark Kent, an “over-reliable” narrator, but it’s harder for us to believe, than that a fiction narrator and author are separate. She shares the example in Fatal Vision movie that McGinnis looked scornfully at a birthday game of throwing darts at a prosecutor (which made McGinniss seem genuine), but others said McGinnis had actually thrown darts there.
  • Oxymoronic term “participant observer” used for anthropology and could be for journalism
  • She has committed “The journalistic solecism of putting a persons feelings above the texts necessities“

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