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The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet…

The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)

by Janet Malcolm

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As a journalist I've often experienced the condition Janet Malcolm dissects so masterfully here--the way my job--and just the act of writing 'nonfiction' itself--requires me to don a persona with interview subjects that will give me the best chance of getting the information I need for a story, or to shape the events I report on into a narrative that will give satisfaction to my readers. Malcolm isn't talking about breaches of journalistic ethics here, but rather, she examines the simple, unavoidable necessity journalists have to make their stories compelling. Journalists do this by choosing sides, even if they believe themselves to be balanced (or "fair and balanced," as some would say). They tell the story in a way that bolsters their points of view and that appeals to their readers. Just committing the act of writing one word after another commits a writer to a certain set of conclusions. Malcolm examines this process with a greatness of heart that left me with a far greater awareness of the way I've been making these choices throughout my career.

Malcolm goes deeper than just examining the journalist's role, however. She also drills home the message that in many contexts the people with the best story to tell are the people who get what they want, and who get people to believe their story...whether it be lawyers telling the "true story" to a jury, or journalists adopting a certain level of jovial banter with interview subject they plan to excoriate in print, or suspected criminals trying to convince others that they are telling the truth. Why do we care so much that a suspect sound 'truthful?' What does that mean, anyway? Do we convict people because we don't like them? How is our idea of "truth" shaped by our human desire to hear a good story, or to fit people into certain categories that match our perception of "a good person" or "a wicked person" or "a trustworthy person?"

These are the kinds of questions Malcolm examines. The book is all the more rewarding for her willingness to put her own journalistic practices and beliefs under intense scrutiny as the book progresses.

A marvelous, eye-opening, self-reflective book. ( )
  poingu | Jan 29, 2015 |
If you were a journalist interviewing an alleged murderer for your story (that you've already spent many years working on), would you say things like "I believe you are innocent" (even though you didn't really believe so) in order to get him to continue talking to you? That is what Joe McGinnis did, and now the murderer is suing him. But McGinnis didn't just tell one lie, he became really good friends with his subject, even becoming part of the defense team during the trial, and continued to send the murderer effusively friendly and encouraging letters in jail. Time and again he sided with the defense in letters and personal communications, while behind their backs he was convinced that the subject was guilty, and writing a book about it.

Janet Malcolm does a good job of bringing out the gray areas in this case. Malcolm clearly sides with MacDonald (the alleged/convicted murderer), but was still able to write intelligently about the opposite argument. I found myself siding with the journalist (McGinnis) at first. My belief was that the journalist owes his subject nothing, but he owes his readers the truth. That was his first job: to get at the truth, and how he got there may not be pretty, but is in service of something greater. Also, we don't like people who betray us, but betrayal in itself isn't a crime! Even though cheating on your girlfriend might be wrong, one shouldn't be able to sue for it. Perhaps McGinnis was a bad friend, even a bad person, but he shouldn't have answer for it in court because what it comes down to is whether or not his book qualified as libel, not whether or not he was a good friend!

But I also began to see the other side more as I read the book. One of the things that worried me was that even though McGinnis went to all the trouble of lying to his subject in order to get him to speak freely, it doesn't seem like he ended up with that much more proof than he started with. His case sounded weak (diet pills? ONE incidence of MacDonald losing his anger/using violence in his whole lifetime?). I felt that if he was gonna lie in order to prove this man guilty, then he should at least find something to justify such means. And if he didn't, he should man up and admit that he didn't. Instead, it seems he might have at one point decided that MacDonald was guilty (perhaps because it would make a more interesting book) and went on a witch hunt to find reasons to justify that decision.

As with the best nonfiction, I'm left thinking more than before, though not sure what to think. ( )
1 vote JimmyChanga | Sep 11, 2013 |
While I found Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" interesting, I'm not sure I would have if I hadn't worked as a reporter.

The book is the examination of a lawsuit brought by a convicted murderer against an author who wrote a book about his case, who basically lied about the tone his book would take. Interesting five out of six jurors found in the murderer's favor, which certainly says a lot about the state of journalism these days.

While I very much agreed with Malcolm's premise that aspects of journalism are morally indefensible, the author she writes about seemed to really cross the line into stunningly unethical behavior in the name of a dollar.

My problem with the book was that it got sort of repetitive after a while. I felt like Malcolm had enough material for a good magazine article, but not quite enough for a book. ( )
  amerynth | Feb 15, 2013 |
An interesting look at the subject-reporter relationship inherent in any journalistic investigation. Malcolm focuses specifically on the problems and issues present in the case of MacDonald v. McGinnis.

MacDonald, convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters, did not like the way he was portrayed in McGinnis’ book, Fatal Vision, where the reporter claimed the man was guilty of the crime. The problem was, McGinnis was given exclusive access to MacDonald during his criminal trial (he was even made a member of the defense team) and subsequent incarceration (he wrote MacDonald numerous letters stating he believed him to be innocent).

The question at the heart of the matter: is it fine for a journalist to lie or deceive to achieve his means (namely, greater or continued access to material / the subject) for completion of his investigation? Malcolm says, essentially, yes — though certainly not to the extent McGinnis went. Moreover, Malcolm recognizes that this is a problem most people have a hard time admitting, much less understanding. Still, she claims there is always a certain amount of interpretation necessary on the part of the journalist, to turn a strictly factual account into a piece of journalism.

"Texts … derived from a tape—however well edited the transcript may be—tend to retain some trace of their origin (almost a kind of metallic flavor) and lack the atmosphere of truthfulness present in a work where it is the writer’s own ear that has caught the drift of the subject’s thought."

Malcolm’s conclusion:

"The moral ambiguity of journalism lies not in its texts but in the relationships out of which they arise—relationships that are invariably and inescapably lopsided."

http://lebookshelf.tumblr.com/post/6475715089/65-the-journalist-and-the-murderer... ( )
  the_bookshelf | Jun 13, 2011 |
This was a fascinating book, in its review of the Jeffrey McDonald case, as the facts were "known" at different stages in time, and about the ethical issues inherent in various aspects of journalism. I'm sure it must be used as a textbook in journalism classes even now, 20 years after publication. (Being 20 years later, I could find out, but due to congenital laziness, will only surmise!) The comparison of the actual and edited - without attribution - quotations which the author discusses in the epilogue would in itself be worth a class of discussion. Absolutely interesting and worthwhile reading. ( )
  cherilove | May 9, 2010 |
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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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679731830, Paperback)

In two previous books, Janet Malcolm explored the hidden sides of, respectively, institutional psychoanalysis and Freudian biography. In this book, she examines the psychopathology of journalism. Using a strange and unprecedented lawsuit as her larger-than-life example -- the lawsuit of Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, against Joe McGinniss, the author of Fatal Vision, a book about the crime -- she delves into the always uneasy, sometimes tragic relationship that exists between journalist and subject. In Malcolm's view, neither journalist nor subject can avoid the moral impasse that is built into the journalistic situation. When the text first appeared, as a two-part article in The New Yorker, its thesis seemed so radical and its irony so pitiless that journalists across the country reacted as if stung.

Her book is a work of journalism as well as an essay on journalism: it at once exemplifies and dissects its subject. In her interviews with the leading and subsidiary characters in the MacDonald-McGinniss case -- the principals, their lawyers, the members of the jury, and the various persons who testified as expert witnesses at the trial -- Malcolm is always aware of herself as a player in a game that, as she points out, she cannot lose. The journalist-subject encounter has always troubled journalists, but never before has it been looked at so unflinchingly and so ruefully. Hovering over the narrative -- and always on the edge of the reader's consciousness -- is the MacDonald murder case itself, which imparts to the book an atmosphere of anxiety and uncanniness. The Journalist and the Murderer derives from and reflects many of the dominant intellectual concerns of our time, and it will have a particular appeal for those who cherish the odd, the off-center, and the unsolved.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:12 -0400)

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Explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects, and the question of journalistic ethics, using the lawsuit of convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against author Joe McGinniss, as a case study.

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