The Journalist and the Murderer

by Janet Malcolm

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Historical Context

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The Reagan Revolution
The 1980s is known as the Reagan era. Conservative former California governor Ronald Reagan was elected to the first of two terms in 1980. His vice president, George Bush, succeeded Reagan in 1988. Reagan took a hard-line against communism and a tough stance in foreign affairs in general. Scandals such as the Iran-Contra affair rocked the nation in the 1980s. In the Iran-Contra affair, members of Reagan’s administration illegally sold missiles to Iran and then used the profits to pay for weapons and supplies for Nicaraguan Contras, who were fighting a civil war against the country’s communist-supported government. Many Americans approved of Reagan because the economy improved during the decade. The 1980s had opened with the United States still mired in recession and stagflation. Reagan supported an economic theory called supply-side economics, in which taxes are cut for wealthy individuals in the hope that these people will invest these savings in businesses, thereby creating jobs and increasing consumer spending. Although the U.S. economy turned around, many critics charged that not all Americans benefited. In fact, during the Reagan years, a growing divide developed between the upper classes and the lower classes.

Crime rates in the United States had dipped in the early 1980s but were on the rise again by the middle of the decade. During the 1980s, public focus turned on the crimes of mass murderers and serial killers. Increased media attention contributed to this trend, as did a rise in ‘‘true crime’’ books. The FBI began to use psychological profiling to identify and arrest unknown killers. Several television programs, including COPS, Unsolved Mysteries, and America’s Most Wanted (hosted by the father of a murdered child), also focused on the apprehension of criminals. These programs all highlighted real-life crimes and entreated the public to help capture the criminals.

White-collar crime also abounded. Two highprofile, white-collar crimes drew the attention of the nation. Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, both financiers, were convicted of illegal business activities. Milken was convicted for having sold junk bonds, and Boesky for having practiced insider trading.

The World of Words
Noted author Phillip Roth estimated that in the 1980s, there were only 120,000 readers of serious literature in the United States. Publishers were less likely to bring out quality literary books. Focusing on turning a larger profit instead of enhancing their reputation, many publishers awarded million-dollar advances to writers of would-be bestsellers, which were often, creatively, merely mediocre. Bestsellers spanned a range of topics, from Stephen Hawking’s study of the universe, A Brief History of Time, to Oliver Sacks’ examination of brain-injured patients, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, to business and cartoon books. Horror-fiction writer Stephen King was probably the most widely read novelist of the 1980s. By the middle of the decade, fifty million copies of his books were in print. Throughout the decade, the gap between bestsellers and great books continued to widen. Some important literary writers included Raymond Carver, Larry McMurtry, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

The Media
While media flourished in the 1980s, the field of journalism worsened overall, with the careful journalistic probing that had dominated past endeavors all but disappearing. Instead, the media delivered what it believed the public wanted: lurid stories and events. The 1980s also saw a large increase in tabloid journalism and the number of talk shows.

Magazine publishing, however, experienced a boom. More new titles emerged that were aimed at increasingly specialized audiences. Magazines catered to almost all audiences from computer users, to parents, to sports fans and exercise fanatics. Many of these new...

(This entire section contains 610 words.)

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publications closed down after only a few years in business, however.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Malcolm uses the first-person point of view throughout the book, which renders her a constant presence in the book. However, she complicates her position at the end of the book. In the afterword, Malcolm states that the journalist’s—and her own— ‘‘I’’ character is ‘‘almost pure invention.’’ She considers the ‘‘I’’ to function as a dispassionate narrator, one that can be as impartial as the thirdperson voice, which is much more widely used in nonfiction texts. Despite her claims, it is difficult at times to distinguish the narrative ‘‘I’’ from the Malcolm ‘‘I’’; at one point she even makes certain to distinguish the two by referring to ‘‘(the actual) I.’’ The ‘‘I’’ puts forth strong assertions, such as the one that opens her work, but is this ‘‘I’’ simply expressing a narrative opinion or Malcolm’s opinion? When Malcolm admits to long being troubled by the ‘‘unhealthiness of the journalist-subject relationship,’’ this only lends further credence to the blending of the two ‘‘I’s.’’

The prominence of Malcolm’s voice in developing her argument poses another potential problem, that of personal ethics. Many critics attacked Malcolm upon the article’s original New Yorker publication because she never mentioned that, like McGinniss, she had been sued for libel by a subject. Some of these attacks suggested that she was simply projecting her own guilty conscience onto the text of her work. Malcolm felt compelled to respond in an article, which was included as the book’s afterword, that this was not the case. However, Malcolm does not deny that even in nonfiction writing, a writer puts a great deal of himself or herself into the ‘‘characters.’’ Malcolm’s specific language here is revealing: in referring to real people as characters, she is expressing her belief that these people have a fictive function.

EssayThe Journalist and the Murderer is an extended essay. Malcolm builds her essay based on personal experience, knowledge, research, and philosophies, but she also draws on actual events, interviews, and other matters of the public record. Though she casts her ideas authoritatively, Malcolm is essentially writing a persuasive essay. She opens her work with a premise—that any decent journalist knows that he or she is acting immorally—and then provides evidence to prove this thesis to the reader. She relies on facts, interviews, and detailed research, as well as on what she perceives to be a solid understanding of human nature. She also attempts to assert her credibility by showing the mistakes she makes but quickly moves to correct. For example, she writes of her surprise at learning that her subtle and sensitive questioning elicited the identical responses from MacDonald as another reporter’s more businesslike technique; however, she turns a blatantly elitist and self-important error into a positive by using it to reach the conclusion that subjects merely want someone who will listen to their story, their truth.

Quotations and Interviews
Malcolm employs several methods of supplying testimony to the reader. She quotes from the McGinniss trial transcript, correspondence, and non- fiction material, as well as from Fatal Vision. In these cases, it appears that she quotes from her sources word-for-word. During the course of working on this book, Malcolm also conducted numerous interviews with many people, including MacDonald, McGinniss, trial witnesses, other journalists, jurists, and friends of MacDonald. Malcolm reports on her interviews and quotes extensively from the dialogue that took place. In her afterword, she points out that readers assume that when they read a quotation in a newspaper, they are reading what the speaker actually said, not what the speaker probably said. However, she also acknowledges that ‘‘when a journalist undertakes to quote 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.’’ While Malcolm maintains that the journalist is merely performing the sort of ‘‘rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs,’’ her revelation calls into some question the exact veracity of the interviews that Malcolm chronicles.

Compare and Contrast

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1980s: In several cases heard in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that in order to find a defendant guilty of libel, reckless disregard and deliberate falsity must have taken place; a reporter must not only publish false information but do so recklessly, maliciously, and without trying to determine the information’s accuracy.

Today: At least one proposal has been made for a new set of libel laws that would make it easier for plaintiffs to prove their cases. The proposal also would eliminate large financial awards.

1980s: At the beginning of the 1980s, there are 612,000 lawyers and 204,000 editors and reporters. By the end of the 1980s, there are 741,000 lawyers and 274,000 editors and reporters.

Today: In 1998, there are 912,000 lawyers and 253,000 editors and reporters.

1970s: At the end of the decade, about 20,000 murders are committed in a year in the United States.

1980s: In 1989, about 21,500 murders are committed in the United States.

Today: In 1998, about 18,200 murders are committed in the United States.

1980s: At the beginning of the 1980s, 168,800 cases commence in U.S. district courts, of which only 6.5 percent reach trial. At the end of the 1980s, in 1990, 217,900 civil cases have commenced, of which 4.3 percent reach trial.

Today: In 1997, 265,200 civil cases commence in U.S. district courts. Of these, only 3 percent reach trial.

1980s: In 1980, 1,716 magazines are published every week. There are a total of 10,236 magazines, including weeklies, being published.

1990s: In 1998, there are 364 magazines that are published weekly, but there are a total of 12,036 magazines, including weeklies, being published.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bruning, Fred, ‘‘Are Journalists Basically Liars?’’ in Maclean’s, Vol. 102, No. 17, April 24, 1989, p. 11.

Friendly, Fred, Review in New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1990, Section 7, p. 1.

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

Seligman, Craig, ‘‘Brilliant Careers,’’ (February 29, 2000).

Stimpson, Catherine R., Review in Nation, Vol. 250, No. 25, June 25, 1990.

Further Reading
Lakoff, Robin Tolmach, and Mandy Aftel, ‘‘In the Malcolm Archives,’’ in Nation, December 16, 1996, p. 32. The authors discuss Malcolm’s body of work, finding common themes, issues, and approaches.

Shalit, Ruth, ‘‘Fatal Revision,’’ in New Republic, May 26, 1997, p. 18. This article provides more up-to-date information about the MacDonald murder case and enumerates suppressed evidence pointing to MacDonald’s possible innocence.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide