The Journalist and the Murderer

by Janet Malcolm

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Ethics and Truth
The exploration of journalistic ethics is at the core of The Journalist and the Murderer. At its outset, Malcolm asserts that every reporter is ‘‘a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’’ To prove her thesis, Malcolm relates the narrative of the MacDonald-McGinniss lawsuit, which has at its heart MacDonald’s contention that McGinniss had not maintained the ‘‘essential integrity’’ of his life story. By contrast, in an interview he gave after the publication of Fatal Vision, McGinniss said that his ‘‘only obligation . . . was to the truth.’’ By that, he means the truth as he (and the MacDonald trial jury) saw it: MacDonald’s guilt—not the truth that he presented to MacDonald: a belief in his innocence.

McGinniss claimed no wrongdoing. At his trial his lawyers brought in other journalists and nonfiction authors to defend his actions. William F. Buckley, Jr., admitted that he would ‘‘tell [a subject] something you don’t really believe in order to get more information from him.’’ Joseph Wambaugh, author of the true crime book The Onion Field, attempted to draw a distinction between a lie and an untruth: ‘‘A lie is something that’s told with ill will or in bad faith,’’ but an untruth is ‘‘part of a device wherein one can get at the actual truth.’’ Such defense, however, failed to convince many spectators, including the jury.

MacDonald’s suit of McGinniss stemmed from what MacDonald viewed as a colossal betrayal of trust. McGinniss asserted a false belief in MacDonald’s innocence in order to gain access to his story. MacDonald’s trust in McGinniss is readily apparent. After MacDonald was convicted and imprisoned, the correspondence between the two men reveals a closer connection than merely authorsubject. On numerous occasions, McGinniss wrote of the unfairness of MacDonald’s conviction and assured MacDonald of his friendship. MacDonald gave McGinniss permission to use his empty apartment and even to remove documents from them— documents that McGinniss would later use to vilify MacDonald. Malcolm also points out that even after the experience with McGinniss, MacDonald continued to trust journalists, for instance, granting interviews and giving materials to them. Malcolm finds such behavior—which she believes manifests a ‘‘childish trust’’ in journalists—common among subjects.

Malcolm also explores the guilt that reporters feel about deluding their subjects from a personal point of view. Clearly finding McGinniss’s actions toward MacDonald reprehensible, Malcolm still wanted to speak with McGinniss. However, McGinniss opted to end a series of projected interviews. While this crippled her endeavor to an extent, she also wrote that it freed her from the guilt she would have felt at talking to a man she thought had acted unethically, because ‘‘you can’t betray someone you barely know.’’

Psychoanalysis and Psychology
Throughout her work, Malcolm uses language and knowledge gleaned from her previous work on psychoanalysis and psychology. On numerous occasions, she compares the journalist’s subject to a therapy patient. For instance, in her opening pages, she likens the journalist’s subject’s discovery of his or her manipulation to a famous psychological experiment conducted in the 1960s. As another example, in discussing the trust that many subjects willingly place in journalists, Malcolm writes, ‘‘The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter.’’ Malcolm draws further parallels between the journalist-subject relationship and the analyst-patient. The subject, like the patient, will tell his or her story to anyone who will listen and always plays the dominant role. Malcolm’s journey to uncover these truths also resembles the therapeutic process. As the...

(This entire section contains 766 words.)

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journalist, she has learned how the subject acts, as the analyst learns how the patient will act. However, Malcolm is not the only person who relies on the language of psychoanalysis. The wife of MacDonald’s lawyer, herself a therapist, likens McGinniss’s conflict that arose from pretending to be MacDonald’s friend to therapy.

Psychology is also important to McGinniss’s work Fatal Vision. In this book he labeled MacDonald a psychopath and a pathological narcissist and quoted several texts that described such deviants. Though the psychiatrist Michael Stone, who was a witness for the McGinniss defense, concurred with this diagnosis, he admitted that he had never met MacDonald; he had actually drawn this conclusion years before, upon reading McGinniss’s book. Malcolm concludes that the labeling of MacDonald as a psychopath was so important to McGinniss because it allowed him to feel that he was betraying an ‘‘it,’’ not a real person.