The Journalist and the Murderer

by Janet Malcolm

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Exploring the Subject

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Malcolm opens her work The Journalist and the Murderer with an extremely provocative premise: ‘‘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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’’

Malcolm uses the difficult relationship between convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and the nonfiction writer Joe McGinniss to explore this weighty hypothesis. MacDonald sued McGinniss for a breach of good faith after the publication of Fatal Vision, which depicted the former Green Beret doctor as a psychopathic killer. Five of six jurists agreed with MacDonald that McGinniss had acted in a deceptive manner, and, clearly, so does Malcolm.

In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm explores the manipulative tactics used by reporters and writers to draw out their subjects and influence their readers. At the same time, however, Malcolm—a journalist—cannot help but implicate herself to a very real degree. At times she does so obliquely, for instance, using descriptions to bolster her opinions about certain personages. She also implicates herself with several forthright statements in which she admits the power a journalist holds over the subject. In speaking of one person who appeared in the book, she writes, ‘‘I always knew I had the option of writing something about him that would cause him distress. . . . He was completely at my mercy. I held all the cards.’’

Concerning the MacDonald-McGinniss case, the facts are hardly in dispute. Malcolm presents a great deal of evidence to prove that McGinniss deliberately and deceitfully pretended to be a friend and supporter of MacDonald. In September 1979, less than one month after MacDonald’s conviction, McGinniss wrote to him in jail, ‘‘Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial.’’ In another letter written that same month, McGinniss shows greater emotion:

Jeff, one of the worst things about all this is how suddenly and totally all your friends—myself included—have been deprived of the pleasure of your company. . . . What the f— were those people thinking of? How could 12 people [the jury] . . . agree to believe such a horrendous proposition?

However, in a later interview with Newsday reporter Bob Keeler, McGinniss asserted that he concurred wholeheartedly with MacDonald’s conviction. ‘‘I knew he had done it—no question.’’ He subsequently dated his belief in MacDonald’s guilt as occurring during the trial.

McGinniss’s letters also show that throughout the period of writing Fatal Vision, the author was not opposed to making his beliefs about MacDonald’s guilt known to others, only to the convicted man himself. McGinniss wrote to his book editor as early as 1981 about his concerns that MacDonald seemed ‘‘too loathsome too soon.’’ He wanted to reveal ‘‘the worst revelations’’ at the end, ‘‘when we draw closer and closer to him, seeing the layers of the mask melt away and gazing . . . at the essence of the horror which lurks beneath.’’ As further proof of his deliberate deceitfulness, the following year, McGinniss wrote to MacDonald that he hoped to be able to call him at home soon, instead of at prison.

In the one meeting between McGinniss and Malcolm, he attempted to justify his actions by pointing out that a journalist has no responsibility to tell a subject that he is creating a negative portrait. In the discussion of MacDonald’s treatment of him, McGinniss reaches the crux of the matter:

MacDonald was clearly trying to manipulate me, and...

(This entire section contains 1651 words.)

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I was aware of it from the beginning. But did I have an obligation to say, ‘Wait a minute. I think you are trying to manipulate me, and I have to call your attention to the fact that I’m aware of this, just so you’ll understand you are not succeeding?’

McGinniss repeated several times that he felt his only responsibility was ‘‘to the book and this truth’’—that is, the truth as he saw it.

MacDonald’s lawyer, Gary Bostwick, strongly disagreed. At the trial he characterized the issue at hand as ‘‘a case about a false friend.’’ MacDonald told Malcolm that ‘‘McGinniss has no excuse for his false portrayal. He wasn’t watching a distant subject through a haze—he was deeply involved, as ‘best friend,’ for four years—and still managed to miss the entire core of my being.’’ McGinniss might argue that he had a different view of MacDonald’s core—seeing there the soul of a psychopathic murderer—but it remains infinitely troubling that McGinniss never intimated it.

At McGinniss’s trial, two well-known writers attempted to defend his actions as ‘‘standard operating procedure.’’ William F. Buckley, Jr., presented the following analogy in his attempt to justify McGinnis’ methods:

If, for instance you were writing a book on somebody who was a renowned philanderer and he said, ‘‘I mean, you do think my wife is impossible, don’t you?,’’ you might say, ‘‘Yeah, I think she’s very hard to get along with,’’ simply for the purpose of lubricating the discussion in order to learn more information.

Joseph Wambaugh displayed even greater hypocrisy. In Malcolm’s words, he ‘‘testified that misleading subjects was a kind of sacred duty among writers.’’ However, Malcolm knows that reporters will act as Wambaugh described. She judges, ‘‘When Buckley and Wambaugh said bluntly that it’s all right to deceive subjects, they breached the contract whereby you never come right out and admit you have stretched the rules for your own benefit.’’

In acknowledging the deceit inherent in journalism, however, Malcolm opens herself up for scrutiny. If allowing one’s own ideas about a subject to infiltrate one’s work is a journalistic sin, Malcolm also seems to be guilty. In the afterword, she raises doubts about her portrayal of the key figures who appear in her book when she asserts that the ‘‘I’’ who speaks throughout The Journalist and the Murderer is not Malcolm but merely the voice of journalistic opinion:

a journalistic ‘‘I’’ . . . an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, . . . which exists only for the occasion it has been summoned for and has no history or life of its own.

However, Malcolm’s assertion—which she recognizes may be difficult for some readers to accept— may trouble a reader, who can extrapolate from it a crucial question: If we can’t trust that Malcolm is Malcolm, how can we trust that the other characters are who she creates them to be?

In certain instances, Malcolm provides factual evidence to back up her allegations. When she quotes McGinniss’s letters and transcripts from his trial, it seems reasonable that these words are the truth—though, of course, a reader does not have access to the entire set of McGinniss’s letters or to the complete transcript. More potentially troublesome is that she relates, and has control of, many conversations with key players. This is true for two reasons. First, before writing The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm had been sued by one of her subjects for misquoting him. The case was eventually decided in her favor, but it is interesting to note that Malcolm no longer had the tape recordings of the conversations, including the quotes in question. Second, Malcolm readily asserts in The Journalist and the Murderer that ‘‘none of the quotations in this book . . . are, of course, identical to their speech counterparts.’’ In essence, Malcolm’s impression is really what matters.

Malcolm undercuts her own authority by doing what she accuses McGinniss of doing: manipulating the audience. She clearly shows her own dislike for the way McGinniss treated MacDonald. One telling example is her discussion of McGinniss’s refusal to allow MacDonald to read an advance copy of the book. Though MacDonald was disappointed, he agreed to appear on 60 Minutes prior to reading the book and there learned of its startling contents:

[He] enthusiastically lent himself to the pre-publication publicity campaign for the book. His assignment was an appearance on the television show 60 Minutes, and it was during the taping of the show in prison that the fact of McGinniss’s duplicity was brought home to him. . . . Mike Wallace—who had received an advance copy of Fatal Visionwithout difficulty or lecture [emphasis mine]—read out loud to MacDonald passages in which he was portrayed as a psychopathic killer.

Malcolm also attempts to sway the reader’s opinion of MacDonald through specific narration. Because MacDonald was ‘‘not suitable for a work of nonfiction, not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers,’’ she relies on description and direct statements to a much greater extent than she does with any other figures. She contends that she only saw one sign of ‘‘anything disturbing and uncanny about MacDonald, of anything that isn’t blandly ‘normal.’’’ She also notes that she is ‘‘struck by the physical grace of the man.’’ In one visit, she rhapsodizes on his eating of doughnuts: ‘‘He handled the doughnuts—breaking off pieces and unaccountably keeping the powdered sugar under control—with the delicate dexterity of a veterinarian fixing a broken wing.’’ With this description, Malcolm attempts to counter the image that McGinniss presented of MacDonald—that of a brutal killer.

In the afterword that Malcolm wrote after being criticized for the piece, she acknowledges more clearly than she had previously the difficult nature of the reporter-subject relationship:

There is an infinite variety of ways in which journalists struggle with the moral impasse that is the subject of this book. The wisest know that the best they can do . . . is still not good enough.

Despite her lengthy investigation, Malcolm finds there is no easy remedy to the problem.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on The Journalist and the Murderer, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

The Haunted House

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The Journalist and the Murderer is a slim book that has raised a hefty ruckus because of its chilly thesis: ‘‘The journalist must do his work in a . . . deliberately induced state of moral anarchy . . . [an] unfortunate occupational hazard.’’ To get information, a journalist must gain access to people. To write up this information, he must betray their faith in him as a good buddy and sympathetic publicist. Journalism is a rough trade that trades off human solidarity for the chance to craft a powerful likeness of reality. Trado, ergo sum, not Cogito, ergo sum or even Scribo, ergo sum, is its existential slogan. In brief, the journalist must become a kind of murderer.

Journalists have endured harsher opprobrium than this. Think of Matthias Pardon in Henry James’s novel The Bostonians (1886), a giddy lightweight of an interviewer for whom a person is but ‘‘food for newsboys.’’ In 1978 the argument of Sissela Bok’s ethical meditation, Lying, anticipated the worst of The Journalist and the Murderer. ‘‘Journalists, police investigators, and so-called intelligence operators,’’ Bok wrote, ‘‘often have little compunction in using false-hoods to gain the knowledge they seek.’’ Though a polite iconoclast, Bok found Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward remiss for not ac knowledging in All the President’s Men the moral dilemma of telling lies in order to get at truths.

James was being satiric, while Bok was a philosophical investigator. Ironic, watchful, canny, Janet Malcolm assumes both those judgeships. She also serves as self-appointed diagnostician and therapist. ‘‘This book,’’ the jacket flap promises, ‘‘examines the psychopathology of journalism.’’ Malcolm believes in freedom of the press but not in its innocence. She deploys demystifying metaphors for the relationship between journalist and subject. In one, a figure of eros gone wrong, the journalist is a seductive confidence man who fleeces a ‘‘credulous widow.’’ In another, a figure of family life gone wrong, during an interview the subject regresses to the blissful condition of a child with an all-forgiving mother. But then, at his desk, the writer becomes the ‘‘strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.’’

Malcolm focuses on an aristocratic form of journalism, the long nonfiction essay. Her journalist is that anguished modern figure, the private detective stuck with reality; Malcolm specializes in the realities of an encounter between reader/text and interviewer/subject. Not for this book the bump and grind between the media and publicity offices; nor the sweat and flap of the daily deadline, be it for print or television; nor, on another level, the heroic crusades of an I.F. Stone or an Ida B. Wells. Nevertheless, Malcolm calls for the profession as a whole to achieve a stoical self-awareness about the impossibility of the profession, an intelligence that The Journalist and the Murderer displays and that its controversial first sentence extols: ‘‘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.’’

None of this would guarantee a jolly ride on the press bus or a drink at the bar in the Holiday Inn of professional popularity. Moreover, Malcolm’s investigation is a case study of epistemological diffi- culties. Like many vivid narratives about the travails of knowing, it involves the courts, an institution that the gods and the devils must have invented together during a wild, let’s-really-get-the-humans night of revelry. For the courts are the arena of zerosum games in which adversaries tell bitterly competitive stories to unpredictable judges and juries about a dramatic but enigmatic world. Those stories are simultaneously cognitive (Did X thrust a knife into Y?), moral (If so, is X a bad person?), legal (Which laws might cover X’s alleged action?) and medical (Was X sane?).

Malcolm originally published The Journalist and the Murderer in The New Yorker. There she explored two interlocking trials. In 1979 Jeffrey MacDonald, a handsome doctor, was found guilty of the 1970 murder of his pregnant wife and two little daughters. Before the trial, MacDonald had hired Joe McGinniss, a celebrity journalist, as a member of his defense team in order to write a book about the ordeal. For the next four years, McGinniss led MacDonald to believe that this journalist was a friend who would exonerate him. To MacDonald’s horror the book, Fatal Vision, as well as its film version sustained the jury’s guilty verdict. In 1984 MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract. A 1987 trial ended in a hung jury and a settlement.

On the basis of the 1979 trial material, Malcolm neither accepts nor rejects the ‘‘truth’’ of MacDonald as murderer. As agnostic about the belief in Nature as the Book of God, she writes, ‘‘It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower—it all depends on how you read the evidence.’’ With some interest she quotes Gary Bostwick, MacDonald’s lawyer in the suit against McGinniss, who carefully distinguishes between ‘‘knowing’’ whether or not a MacDonald is a murderer and ‘‘believing’’ that he is not. His trial then is less a ‘‘search for truth’’ than a ‘‘cathartic’’ release of tensions and differences. Indeed, our major trials are rituals that re-enact deep social patterns of guilt and punishment, innocence and release.

Malcolm’s fastidious professional skepticism leads to portraits of the intellectually and morally self-assured that are as edged and edgy as the Avedon photographs in which subjects posed in front of blank white paper: a writer and political scientist who testified against McGinniss; a psychiatrist who testified against MacDonald. Malcolm is even more sardonic about the certainties of psychiatric discourse: ‘‘Our standard psychiatric diagnostic nomenclature has all the explanatory power of the nomenclature of medieval physiology involving the four humors.’’

However, Malcolm can abandon the multivoiced statements of the agnostic in order to deliver an unequivocal judgment. Exploring her tense relationship with McGinniss, who emerges as less than ethically and psychologically kempt, she admits to the parallels between this relationship and his to MacDonald. Both journalists began to see increasingly unlovable subjects through the rude eyes of their legal opponents. Yet she finds McGinniss guilty of ‘‘crude and gratuitous two-facedness.’’

Next, in an ‘‘Afterword’’ that did not appear in The New Yorker, Malcolm admits to still another parallel between her career and that of McGinniss. In 1984 she too was sued—by Jeffrey Masson, the central character in her book In the Freud Archives. The well-known libel case, Jeffrey M. Masson v. The New Yorker Magazine Inc., Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Janet Malcolm, is usually abbreviated to Masson-Malcolm or ‘‘The Malcolm Case.’’ In a variation on the theme of doubled and reversed identities, the hunting journalist became the hunted defendant; the writer of one text became a character in another, the legal document; and the powerless subject became the powerful plaintiff.

Retaining her poise during her self-xdefense, Malcolm describes such suits as therapy, a gratifying ‘‘law cure’’ for narcissistically wounded subjects that is healthier for writers than assassination on an ayatollah’s order. More icily, Malcolm denies that she took up MacDonald v. McGinniss as a screened confession that she had wronged Masson. She is too sophisticated to note the vulgar coincidence of writing about two Jeffreys (MacDonald and Masson) and four names with the initials ‘‘J.M.,’’ but that very sophistication should have instructed her to warn her New Yorker readers that their guide to MacDonald v. McGinniss had been the defendant in Masson v. Malcolm. For surely this experience gave her some expertise and authority. Such a warning would also have saved her a pack of trouble. With uncharacteristic vehemence, Malcolm refutes both Masson’s accusations that she ‘‘fabricated notes and invented quotations’’ and the New York Times account of the case by Albert Scardino, now David Dinkins’s press secretary. Yet she wearily recognizes that the same power of the press that she exercises as a journalist has branded her an erring journalist. She is ‘‘tainted—a kind of fallen woman of journalism.’’

The tale of the three caskets has attracted mythmakers, fictioneers, folklorists, Shakespeare and Freud. In The Merchant of Venice, a different drama about suitors and lawsuits, Portia’s would-be husbands must choose among the caskets of gold, silver and lead. Perhaps in The Journalist and the Murderer trials have become a substitute for the caskets, a journalist for the suitors, the winning of ‘‘truth’’ for the winning of a wife. In the MacDonald case, equivalent to the casket of gold, Malcolm finds death—MacDonald’s wife and children and his reputation. In the McGinniss case, equivalent to the casket of silver, Malcolm finds a fool, Shakespeare’s ‘‘blinking idiot’’: McGinniss himself. In the Malcolm case, equivalent to the casket of lead, she finds her own portrait, though no gallant Bassanio has claimed that it is spun of sugar and gold.

The picture is that of a writer. To analyze it, Malcolm juxtaposes the overlapping genres of fiction, nonfiction, the letter, psychotherapy and law. With shrewdness and style, if without desperate originality, she asks about the ontological status of their respective characters and authors. So doing, she reiterates the modern romance of the novelist as hero. He ‘‘fearlessly plunges into the water of selfexposure [while] the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe.’’ The shivers of the journalist, I might add, are akin to the goose bumps of the critic.

Malcolm is smartly aware of the impurities of nonfiction. Only naïve-readers are not. Yes, nonfiction is also covert autobiography, a projection of ‘‘the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties.’’ ‘‘Masson,’’ she writes with a small, ironic flourish, ‘‘c’est moi.’’ Yes, nonfiction has a fictive character, the ‘‘I,’’ its ‘‘overreliable narrator:’’ The uniqueness of McGinniss was not the discrepancy between the ‘‘I’’ of Fatal Vision and the McGinniss who signed a book contract but the fact that this discrepancy provoked a lawsuit. And yes, the journalist can touch up a subject’s taperecorded comments in order to convey their truth. Accurate prose is more shapely than a raw transcript.

Yet Malcolm will not collapse nonfiction into fiction. Adapting Henry James’s figure of the ‘‘House of Fiction,’’ she plays with the conceit of the ‘‘House of Actuality.’’ The writer of nonfiction only rents this house and must live by the terms of his lease. He can bring in his own furniture, but he must leave the place the way he found it. The writer of fiction has ‘‘more privileges.’’ ‘‘Master’’ of the house, he can rampage around, even tear the old manse down.

The passages about the ‘‘House of Actuality’’ are paths that lead to some difficult copses in this spare, lucid, clever book. Malcolm accepts an adulterated relationship between the writer of nonfiction and the techniques of fiction—for a reason. This coupling renders nonfiction more virtual and therefore more virtuous. However, Malcolm’s argument retains the illusion of the existence of ‘‘the actual,’’ an uncontaminated referent, a pure realm that exists out there and that our discourse has not already interpreted for us.

A metaphor for my meaning: I own a copy of The House of Fiction, Leon Edel’s 1957 collection of James’s literary criticism. A scalawag friend once wrapped it in the jacket of an edition of Vicki Baum’s novel Grand Hotel that was issued after the film version. I gaze at the image of the gaze of Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery. The jacket copy blares out, ‘‘Reader! Treat yourself to a glowing evening packed with moments of romance and excitement. Here is the story that has thrilled the theatre-goers, movie fans and readers of two continents.’’

I live in a house with new gutters and old moldings that need repair. However actual this house might be, however actual my life within it, I cannot sense and interpret them for themselves. Instead, I sense and interpret my homestead through acts of language that cover acts of language that cover acts of language: such legal documents as my deed and mortgage agreement, such metaphors’ as the House of Fiction and the House of Actuality, such cross-media narratives as Grand Hotel and such drastic accounts as that of the MacDonald family in their apartment on the night of a triple murder.

Obviously, postmodernism has been the voice box for this quaver. Feminism is the voice box for my next: Malcolm masculinizes the act of writing. All writers are ‘‘he.’’ A ‘‘master’’ throws his weight around the house of actuality. Malcolm might shrug and call me persnickety, but her tone-deafness about gender blunts her ability to hear and tell her story.

Two examples. Malcolm describes the friendship between McGinniss and MacDonald as ‘‘of a particularly American cast, whose emblems of intimacy are watching sports on television, drinking beer, running, and classifying women according to looks.’’ This is not particularly American, but particularly male American. How masculine was the world of the MacDonald defense team? How might this have influenced MacDonald’s sense of betrayal? Malcolm tells of a male interviewer who asked McGinniss if he was going to treat Jeffrey MacDonald as he had Richard Nixon in an earlier book, to ‘‘be . . . in his confidence . . . and then run it up his butt sideways.’’ In theory the metaphor of the anal rapist might be applied to bullies of both sexes, but fear of the homosexual anal rapist is particularly male. How masculine is the world of journalism? How does this shape reports about the House of Actuality? And responses to responses to these reports?

Emily Dickinson’s ‘‘Poem 1400’’ is a mordant lyric about epistemology. ‘‘But nature is a stranger yet,’’ she writes. ‘‘The ones that cite her most/Have never passed her haunted house.’’ A modernist text,

The Journalist and the Murderer finds human nature both strange and a stranger. It suspects any commentator who cites human nature without selfinterrogation. It offers little consolation to writers of some integrity who devise ‘‘counterparts to real life.’’ Such writers do what they must, but some blood will fleck the keyboards of even wisest among them.

Source: Catharine R. Stimpson, ‘‘The Haunted House,’’ in The Nation, Vol. 250, No. 25, June 25, 1990, pp. 899–902.

The Journalist: A Source’s Captive or Betrayer

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Every reader of this magazine who isn’t a moron or a pompous ass knows that his literary taste is utterly depraved.

There. Have I got your attention?

A year ago, writing in The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm fashioned a lead of comparable authority: ‘‘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.’’

The ensuing articles were particularly arresting because they purported to be not just another haymaker thrown from the disaffected ranks of Middle America but sophisticated critiques by a practitioner of the very craft under attack.

But a rereading of these articles and a new ‘‘afterword,’’ now collected between hard covers, convinces me that Malcolm is writing from well outside the journalistic tradition—which accounts for both the strengths and weaknesses of this book.

The outsider’s perspective enables Malcolm to plumb ironies that might be missed by workaday reporters. And there are some fine glancing insights: ‘‘The subject is Scheherazade. He lives in fear of being found uninteresting, and many of the strange things that subjects say to writers—things of almost suicidal rashness—they say out of their desperate need to keep the writer’s attention riveted.’’

But Malcolm is rather like a clever chiropractor examining the practice of medicine. Finally, The Journalist and the Murderer is a work of inspired quackery.

Now a disclaimer. Since Malcolm has been widely accused of disguising a secret agenda, let me concede that I have long been a friend of Joe McGinniss, the target of her attack. On the other hand, for nearly 10 years, until he became editor of The New Yorker, my book editor was Robert Gottlieb, who is Malcolm’s greatest patron and defender. With a foot in each camp, I’ll try to walk a straight line.

Just who is this person who claims to have unveiled the dirty little secret of American journalism? She presents herself here as a reporter, explaining, ‘‘I have been writing long pieces of reportage for a little over a decade.’’ But there is reason to suspect this appellation. For, as Malcolm herself warns us, ‘‘the ‘I’ character in journalism is almost pure invention.’’ In her case, I think it is.

Malcolm has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965, exploring a limited range of subjects—food, Shaker furniture, photography, and psychoanalysis among them. So far as I can determine, she has never been on the staff of another publication—since the days that she reviewed for the student paper and helped edit the humor magazine at the University of Michigan. She never went through the apprenticeship—general assignments off a city desk—that has shaped the work habits of so many American reporters of my generation.

To be sure, her work bristles with acute intelligence and a certain showy erudition: Proust and Chekhov, Kokoshka and Gurdjiev, Grandcourt and Osmond, Beethoven bagatelles and Cellini bronzes, Raymond de Saussure and Frieda Fromm-Reichman. But her learning smells of the lamp, of long hours in a mittel-Europa study, abstracted from the street and the workplace.

No, it seems to me that the woman who lurks behind the ‘‘I’’ in The Journalist and the Murderer is less reporter than analysand.

Seasoned Professional
We all know the professional student, the fellow with the green book bag over his shoulder who hangs around a university year after year, accumulating credits and even degrees, unwilling to let go of the academic experience. There is also the professional analysand, the patient who has gone through years of psychotherapy, but who, even after the analysis has been ‘‘terminated,’’ can’t quite bring himself to let it go. Over and over, in his friendships, his marriage, his professional encounters, he goes on playing out the unresolved themes of his analysis.

Janet Malcolm is the daughter of a psychiatrist. She has undergone analysis. Two of her four books deal with psychoanalysis, and, as I reread them, it struck me that, for her, the relationship between reporter and subject is another version of therapist and patient.

If Malcolm is a professional analysand, she is one who seems to fantasize about reversing roles, about becoming the therapist. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, she drew a portrait of a pseudonymous analyst she calls ‘‘Aaron Green.’’ In her first interview/session with Green, Malcolm detects a curious phenomenon. ‘‘He subtly deferred to me, he tried to impress me. He was the patient and I was the doctor; he was the student and I was the teacher. To put it in psychoanalytic language, the transference valence of the journalist was here greater than that of the analyst.’’

Over and over in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm sounds the same equation between subject and patient, e.g.: ‘‘The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter.’’

If Malcolm dreams about playing therapist, she often seems to drift into what analysts call ‘‘counter- transference,’’ the projection onto the patient of characteristics of significant people from the therapist’s own past.

Thus, Malcolm’s assault on Joe McGinniss for the seduction and betrayal of his subject, Jeffrey MacDonald, struck many people as a reflection of her own concern about similar accusations leveled against her by Jeffrey Masson, the subject of her third book, In the Freud Archives. Both Jeffreys sued, claiming that they had been betrayed by the author in question, in MacDonald’s case because McGinniss had allegedly misled him about his view of MacDonald’s guilt in the murder of his wife and two daughters; in Masson’s, because Malcolm allegedly misquoted and doctored material to show Masson, the onetime projects director of the Freud Archives, in a bad light.

What strikes me on this rereading is how Malcolm seems determined to universalize her own shortcomings, turning each into the journalistic equivalent of original sin. The first two McGinniss pieces seemed to be saying something like this: Look, if Masson accuses me of seduction and betrayal, doesn’t he realize that’s what all reporters do, and here’s case far more egregious than mine to illustrate the point.

Then when commentators—notably John Taylor in New York magazine—pointed out the parallels of the Masson case (she hadn’t mentioned it), Malcolm fired back in the afterword, first published in The New York Review of Books.

Although she denied that her McGinniss pieces were merely a ‘‘thinly veiled account of my own experiences,’’ she also wrote: ‘‘The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c’est moi.’’

One waits in vain for the corollary: McGinniss, c’est moi. But Malcolm goes on to ridicule her journalistic critics for their thunderous discovery ‘‘that I had not ‘made up’ my story—that is, had not acted in good faith in presenting it as a new story. . .’’

Fools, she seems to be saying, are you so psychonalytically illiterate that you don’t see that all nonfiction writers project their desires and anxieties on their subjects just as we all carry around with us for life the emotional luggage of our infancy?

Malcolm is surely no fool; she knows the weakness of this argument. Indeed, in the first McGinniss piece, she ridiculed the testimony of William Buckley and Joseph Wambaugh about the legitimacy of telling ‘‘untruths’’ to a source. The ‘‘debacle’’ of their testimony, she wrote, ‘‘illustrates a truth that many of us learn as children: the invariable inefficacy of the ‘Don’t blame me—everybody does it’ defense.’’ It doesn’t work for Malcolm any better than it did for Buckley and Wambaugh.

Even if her famous lead sentence is premeditated hyperbole, it represents a profound misunderstanding of American journalism. The principal failings of the craft are not seduction and betrayal, but laziness and coziness.

Straight from the source’s mouth
In the early sixties, when I was the city hall reporter for the Sun in Baltimore, all local news ran on the back page. Each morning as assistant city editor would scrawl ‘‘city’’ on column one of the back page dummy and ‘‘state’’ on column eight, signifying that, absent some typhoon or tidal wave, the state house reporter and I were responsible for supplying the day’s two major stories.

This meant that, at all costs, we had to cultivate our sources in hopes that a steady stream of zoning board appointments and updates on the tax rate would feed that voracious back page. And that meant that betrayal was the very last impulse we could afford to indulge. For in the rococo corridors of city hall a reputation for betrayal was a sure guarantee that the supply of news would dry up— and with it our professional aspirations.

No, the premium was on keeping those channels of information open, even at the risk of unseemly coziness with our sources. And, notwithstanding the pyrotechnics of Vietnam and Watergate, that, I fear, is still the priority of most American journalism.

If Malcolm’s sweeping generalization usually misses the target, it may have a limited application to a tiny swatch of the journalistic battleground: investigative magazine pieces and books, one-time ventures in which the reporter knows he will never have to deal with his source or subject again.

In a fit of frankness, Drew Pearson once commented, ‘‘We will give immunity to a very good source as long as the information he offers us is better than what we have on him.’’ If a source is himself so deeply implicated in the story that he threatens to become the story, he may be in jeopardy. For some reporters, it comes down to a calculus of whether they have more to gain by cultivating the source or ‘‘burning’’ him. Critics will charge that the reporter has betrayed his source in pursuit of self-interest; the reporter will say he has gone after the more important story. Often the reporter does both.

But in a journalistic sea awash with mindless puffery and boundless gullibility, sharks like these, prowling a roiled but tiny pool, are scarcely representative of the species.

Moving to Malcolm’s second universal rule, the tendency of all nonfiction writers to imbue their subjects with their own desires and anxieties, I would concede that some reporters may be inclined to play out their own preoccupations in the dramas they cover. But reporters raised in the discipline of the city desk learn rather early to struggle against that temptation, and they usually prevail.

With the writers of long nonfiction books, the struggle is a bit harder. The process of writing a Best and the Brightest or a Bright Shining Lie is so consuming that, not suprisingly, the author is tempted to color his protagonists with some of his own obsessions. But, again, the best of our non- fiction writers struggle to separate the interior and exterior worlds.

Not only does Malcolm almost willfully refuse to distinguish these realms, but she displays a lofty, indeed elitist, disdain for the plodding reporters who do. Joe Keeler, a reporter for Newsday who covered the MacDonald case, is characterized as ‘‘the unsubtle Keeler,’’ with his ‘‘prepared questions and his newspaper-reporter’s directness,’’ and Malcolm doubts that his straightforward approach would draw from his subjects ‘‘the kind of authentic responses that I try to elicit from mine with a more Japanese technique.’’

Keeler is treated kindly in comparison to Joseph Wambaugh, the kind of blunt nonfiction writer Malcolm clearly regards as a vulgarian (‘‘I’m not an intellectual,’’ she elicits from him with her sushislicing technique, ‘‘I write from the guts’’). His prose style is described as ‘‘like that of the charmless writing in small print on a baggage-claim check.’’

Malcolm’s distance from the constraints of normal journalistic practice is most evident in her statement that McGinniss’s decision to halt their projected series of interviews ‘‘freed me from the guilt’’ she might have felt for what she was about to do to him.

Step into my parlor. . .
Most reporters know the hot pulse of anger when somebody refuses to talk with you. Don’t they know who I am, you say? I’ll show them. You go to bed determined to wreak vengeance. But, most of the time, you wake the next morning and say: Nah, it’s not worth it. If the impulse survives the night, then your editor is bound to remind you that people have a right not to talk with you and a professional doesn’t punish them for it. Indeed, at every journalistic institution where I have worked, the tradition— not always lived up to—was that you leaned over backwards to be fair to the people who wouldn’t talk to you, for fear that you could be accused of exactly what Malcolm now proudly admits. Since she was published by one of her best friends and edited by her husband, she wasn’t restrained as she might have been by a less collaborative hand.

(Malcolm’s pique at McGinniss’s failure to continue their talks is all the more peculiar because she is not renowned for openness herself. By all reports, she does not give interviews. And when a fact-checker from this magazine called to ask whether her father was an ‘‘analyst,’’ she said, ‘‘That’s not true,’’ neglecting to add that his job description, ‘‘psychiatrist,’’ was one that most laymen would be hard-pressed to distinguish from ‘‘analyst,’’ and one indeed that many analysts share.)

For just one moment, let us consider the McGinniss matter drained of the punitive spirit Malcolm brings to her task.

At Jeffrey MacDonald’s explicit invitation, McGinniss entered into a contract to tell the truth about the case and to divide the proceeds of the resulting book, with MacDonald’s share earmarked to pay his huge defense costs. McGinniss has been criticized for so-called ‘‘checkbook journalism,’’ but I’m not sure that I find anything inherently wrong with such a deal.

Imagine if you will the hypothetical, but not unrealistic, case of a reporter who writes a book about a black man accused of raping a white woman during the civil rights struggle. If the reporter believed the man was unjustly accused, how many of us would condemn him for sharing the book’s proceeds with the defendant in order to pay court costs? If one believed that Jeffrey MacDonald was innocent—as Joe McGinniss plainly did when he entered into the deal—is this instance so terribly different?

But if McGinniss subsequently discovered that, despite his contract to tell the truth, MacDonald had systematically lied to him and indeed cynically used him to spread a false version of the events, then who has seduced and betrayed whom?

The answer, I suggest, hinges on whether you think MacDonald lied to McGinniss and thus on whether you believe that he was guilty of murdering his wife and children or not. But curiously, although she slyly hints that she has doubts about his guilt, Malcolm explicitly refuses to make the hard march through the evidence in which the answer ultimately may lie.

MacDonald sends her mounds of such material— ‘‘trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports.’’ Malcolm can’t read such stuff. She sees words like ‘‘‘bloody syringe,’ ‘blue threads,’ ‘left chest puncture,’ ‘unidentified fingerprints,’ ‘Kimberly’s urine,’’’ and she adds the document to the unread pile. ‘‘I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocense from this material.’’

Slogging through this gritty minutiae is all right for cloddish reporters like Keeler and McGinniss— and the judge, attorneys and jurors in the trial that found MacDonald guilty—but not for a woman of letters like Malcolm, adept at intuiting the inner life of her subjects.

Once McGinniss became convinced that MacDonald had both murdered his wife and children and lied to him about it, he confronted a difficult dilemma: how to hold his subject’s confidence long enough for him to complete the research.

Some have argued with Malcolm that McGinniss simply made a self-interested calculation that he had more to gain by deceiving MacDonald than by ‘‘keeping faith’’ with him (which, in this case, I suppose would have meant informing him rather early on that he believed him to be guilty).

Knowing, liking, and respecting Joe McGinniss as I do, I regard his quandary as much more complicated: Whether MacDonald’s betrayal in effect abrogated the spirit of their agreement, or whether he was still bound by some sort of obligation to his faithless ‘‘partner,’’ and if so, what it was. Each of us would parse that problem differently.

I don’t always recognize my friend in some of the supportive letters he wrote MacDonald, even as his views were shifting. I don’t believe he had an obligation to inform MacDonald that he believed him guilty, but he might have been less ebullient in his letters of reassurance. McGinniss’s mistake, I think, was in ever allowing himself to be drawn into a ‘‘friendship’’ with his subject, even when he still believed MacDonald to be innocent and saw him as under siege. Had he established a more detached stance from the beginning, he would never have had to worry about MacDonald discerning a shift in tone.

But what we are talking about here, I think, is not a defect in character but a matter of judgment. Whatever you believe McGinniss’s mistakes to be, can they possibly justify Malcolm’s scorched-earth expedition?

If she often reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the reporter’s craft, Malcolm has nonetheless written a quirky, provocative outsider’s book. Even when her grandiloquent airs drive one to distraction, Malcolm’s sheer intelligence makes her worth attending to. Her ruminations about the reporter- subject relationship are well-timed, because they coincide with some self-criticism from within the craft about the reigning orthodoxy of nonfiction, the third-person narrative in vogue ever since John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Capote’s In Cold Blood.

We are witnessing an interesting return to the first person—in autobiography, memoir, travel writing, and much other nonfiction. This reflects, in part, a suspicion that the third person disguises too many hidden sources and secret agendas. The first person appeals to some because it seems to promise greater frankness and authenticity. But, bearing in mind the memoirs of certain generals and politicians, a friend of mine warns, ‘‘The greatest lies are told in the confessional.’’ Malcolm’s book may be another case in point.

Source: J. Anthony Lukas, ‘‘The Journalist: A Source’s Captive or Betrayer?’’ in Washington Monthly, Vol. 22, No. 4, May 1990, pp. 44–49.


Critical Overview