The Journalist and the Murderer

by Janet Malcolm

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Gary Bostwick
Bostwick was the lawyer who represented MacDonald in his libel suit against McGinniss.

William F. Buckley, Jr.
Buckley, a writer, was a witness for the defense at McGinniss’s libel trial. He testified that it was.

Janet Malcolm
acceptable for a writer to falsely agree to something a subject says in order to acquire more information.

Lucille Dillon
Dillion was the one jurist serving on the McGinniss-MacDonald trial who did not find McGinniss guilty. Her refusal to deliberate forced the judge to declare a mistrial.

Dr. Jeffrey Eliot
Dr. Eliot was a writer and a professor who taught at North Carolina Central University. He was working on a book about MacDonald and served as a witness at the libel trial. He believed that MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and that a new one could result in his acquittal.

Bob Keeler
Keeler was a reporter from Newsday who had covered the MacDonald trial. He hoped to publish his own book about the crime but was unable to get a contract. He interviewed McGinniss, questioning him closely about his relationship to MacDonald.

Daniel Kornstein
Kornstein was the lawyer who defended McGinniss in his libel trial. He drew Malcolm’s interest in the case in 1987 when he sent a letter to thirty journalists around the country, inviting them to talk to McGinniss and begin an investigation of this perceived threat to the freedom of journalistic expression.

Jeffrey MacDonald
MacDonald was a physician for a U.S. Army Green Beret unit in 1970 when his pregnant wife and two young daughters were stabbed to death in the family’s home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. MacDonald claimed four hippies had broken into the house and committed the crime. MacDonald moved to California and started a new life. Several years later, MacDonald was charged with the crime. The trial took place in 1979, and MacDonald was found guilty.

McGinniss’s Fatal Vision supported this position. MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of faith in 1987. The two parties’ lawyers agreed to settle; McGinniss admitted to no wrongdoing but paid MacDonald $325,000. In the years since both of these trials, MacDonald has maintained his innocence.

Janet Malcolm
Malcolm is one of the key characters in her book. She narrates the book from the first-person point of view (though she maintains in the afterword that the ‘‘I’’ is merely a dispassionate narrator and not really Malcolm at all). As a journalist, Malcolm has undertaken the investigation of the relationship that exists between the journalist and his or her subject. As she tells the reader, this is an issue that has long troubled her. She has genuine experience in the difficulties this relationship poses, for she previously was the defendant in a lawsuit in which one of her subjects accused her of misquoting him. Her book is an extended musing on the ethics and responsibilities of the journalist, both to the subject and to the reader. She castigates any journalists who do not acknowledge the inherent problem that exists but readily admits that there is no easy solution to balancing the desires of all the parties involved. As she points out, a writer always transfers part of herself or himself onto the subject. ‘‘The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction,’’ she writes, ‘‘derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is.’’ With her host of inflammatory statements, Malcolm opened herself up for the harsh criticism of her colleagues.

Michael Malley
Malley was a lawyer who had been MacDonald’s college roommate. He had...

(This entire section contains 933 words.)

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taken part in the army hearings that dismissed the charges against him in 1970, and he also took a leave from his law firm to work for his friend’s defense in the murder trial. He was not happy that McGinniss was given such easy access to MacDonald’s defense team. He played a key role in MacDonald’s libel suit, testifying about the relationship that developed between MacDonald and McGinniss.

Joe McGinniss
McGinnis was a well-known nonfiction writer. At the time Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer, he had published six books. He first met MacDonald in 1979, right before his murder trial commenced. He contracted with MacDonald to write about MacDonald’s experience and received complete and exclusive access to MacDonald and his lawyers. McGinniss seemed to become close friends with MacDonald, and after MacDonald was found guilty, McGinniss corresponded with him for almost four years. Though he actually believed that MacDonald was guilty, he kept this truth hidden while he was working on his book.

The book McGinniss published about the case, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983. Upon reading it, MacDonald discovered for the first time that McGinniss believed him to be guilty of the crime. Furthermore, the book also helped convince numerous readers of MacDonald’s guilt.

Bernard Segal
Segal defended MacDonald before the Army tribunal—which found him uninvolved in the murders—and remained his lawyer until 1982. Getting a writer involved in MacDonald’s story was originally Segal’s idea.

Dr. Michael Stone
Dr. Stone was a witness for the defense at McGinniss’ libel trial. He had diagnosed MacDonald as having a pathological illness after reading Fatal Vision.

Joseph Wambaugh
Wambaugh, a true crime writer, was a witness for the defense at McGinniss’s libel trial. He maintained that there was a crucial difference between a lie and an untruth. He believed that it was accept able for a journalist to deceive a subject in order to get at the actual truth, thus rendering it an ‘‘untruth.’’

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