The Journalist and the Murderer

by Janet Malcolm

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In The Journalist and the Murderer (originally published almost in its entirety in the New Yorker), Malcolm explores the relationship between the journalist and the subject. Declaring that this relationship is always rife with seduction and betrayal, Malcolm focuses her argument around the example of MacDonald and McGinniss. MacDonald was the former Green Beret doctor convicted of murdering his wife and two young children. McGinniss was the writer who gained exclusive access to MacDonald and his lawyers, and, while professing to be a friend and supporter of MacDonald, wrote and published Fatal Vision, a nonfiction book that portrayed the doctor as a pathological liar and cold-blooded killer. MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract.

McGinniss was already an award-winning non- fiction writer when he first met MacDonald in 1979. MacDonald’s wife and children had been murdered in 1970, he alleged, by a group of hippies who broke into the family’s apartment. Although an army tribunal cleared MacDonald, several years later more evidence was disclosed, and he was indicted for murder. About to face trial, MacDonald asked McGinniss if he would like to write a book about the case from the point of view of the defense team. McGinniss was drawn to the insider position. He accompanied the MacDonald team to North Carolina for the trial, lived in their rented fraternity house and eventually was made a member in order to guard lawyer-client privilege. In return for this exclusive access, MacDonald would receive a share of the royalties. He also signed a contract promising not to sue McGinniss for libel if he did not like McGinniss’s finished product.

After a seven-week trial, MacDonald was convicted and sent to prison. McGinniss spent the next four years working on his book. Despite continuous contact with MacDonald, McGinniss never revealed that he believed MacDonald was guilty and that the book would clearly demonstrate this sentiment.

After Fatal Vision was published in 1983, MacDonald sued his former confidante. At the trial, cross-examination forced McGinniss to reveal his disingenuous behavior toward MacDonald. Trial excerpts included in Malcolm’s book make him appear, simply, an opportunist. Rebuttal witnesses, fellow writers who attempted to justify being dishonest with subjects in order to get information, only hindered his case. Three months after the trial ended in a hung jury—a 6–1 split—an agreement was made under which McGinniss admitted to no wrongdoing but paid MacDonald $325,000.

Malcolm became interested in the case after receiving a letter from McGinniss’s lawyer, Daniel Kornstein, in which he spoke of the threat the lawsuit posed to journalistic freedom. Malcolm responded by getting in touch with and subsequently interviewing McGinniss. Though McGinniss canceled all future interviews, Malcolm continued to investigate the story. She read the transcript of the MacDonald-McGinniss trial and interviewed other key participants. Malcolm met with lawyers, witnesses, private investigators, and jurists involved in the case. She used this research to draw numerous conclusions about the inherent uneasiness of the journalist-subject relationship.

One piece of information Malcolm did not include in the main body of the book was that she herself had been sued for libel by one of her own subjects; that libel suit had ended in its dismissal. Many of Malcolm’s fellow journalists responded critically to her work, charging that she used McGinniss’s ordeal to expatiate her own guilt. In an afterword, Malcolm denied these charges. She maintained that the problem of the journalist-subject relationship had long disturbed her, but she also acknowledged that the writer always finds some part of herself in her characters.

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