More Than a Title: Malcolm’s Searing Take on Equity of Immorality in “The Journalist and the Murderer”
Posted on 3rd April 2022 at 22:06
By Sebastian Grace
“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.”
Janet Malcolm’s "The Journalist and the Murderer" lays bare the convoluted and pitfall-laden relationship between journalists and their sources through the tale of Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor convicted of killing his young family, and Joe McGinniss, an author and would-be charlatan, loosely held up as representative of the journalism field in which he would surely be one of the very worst.
While seemingly always looking in the mirror at his morally indefensible journalistic practices, McGinniss appears both too stupid and too full of himself to care. Malcolm's book serves to both offer a critique of McGinniss' malpractice in his mission to document the facts from the side of the defense in the MacDonald case while depicting him as a narcissistic psychopath and, more broadly, the dichotomy between journalistic reportage and the morality and ethics of the behavior in question as a result.
While some, such as award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, argue that considerable questions remain around the facts of the crime for which MacDonald was convicted, little is left to the imagination about Malcolm's view on McGinniss' conduct throughout the months of conversation and research that informed his book, "Fatal Vision."
"McGinniss chose not to see what was staring him in the face," Malcolm writes. Detailing a litany of self-enforced missteps and criticizing McGinniss' financially motivated involvements in the intimate and vulnerable details of MacDonald's defense, Malcolm claims he indicts himself. Even MacDonald, too, in letters to Malcolm, admits, "McGinniss has no excuse for his false portrayal."
Through McGinniss' flaws, illustrated ultimately by when he is forced to pay MacDonald a $325,000 settlement after a 1987 fraud trial he brought, Malcolm revealingly portrays him as ultimately in the same position as his subject: eventually turning down further interviews with Malcolm, seemingly broken by interrogations similar to his own.
"When one is feeling as beleaguered as McGinniss must have been feeling, anything short of utter, empathetic agreement will seem hostile and unfeeling." Well, quite.
Malcolm writes in a separate instance, "And just as the subject, after the book or article comes out, will desperately attempt to unsay the things he wishes he had not said to the journalist, so, at the trial, did McGinniss attempt to repudiate his letters to MacDonald."
In the Washington Post, a 2012 article by Gene Weingarten describes a version of events surrounding MacDonald as "one currently popular theory." Through this tongue-in-cheek remark, Weingarten cuts right to the heart of the central issue in this case and Malcolm's book - narrative: what is it, when, and to whom. Malcolm appears to lean towards favoring the decision to send Macdonald to jail for his crimes in "The Journalist and the Murderer” with a less than inexplicit and provocative title and routine dismissal of his attempts to clear his name with evidence sent in desperation from a jail cell.
While almost certainly adopting the defensive crouch Malcolm anticipated in the closing passages of her book, I do believe the role of “The Journalist and the Murderer” in the zeitgeist as a no holds barred view is misguided on the process often cited as the foundational dynamic of journalism’s pursuit of the truth: befriending sources, beseeching their trust, and then exploiting it to report less than favorable information in the name of public but often equally personal interest.
In my opinion, McGinniss' paranoid and exploitative spin and self-interest while putting together "Fatal Vision" are alone at fault and do not provide an extrapolative case study. Informative, sure, but far from proof of the "stealing as a foundation of making" Malcolm references early in the book and indeed not broadly applicable enough to merit the unfavorably introspective and indicative beacon she shines on what she sees as the potentially corrupted ideals of ethics and objectivity in journalism that most practitioners hold dear.
Malcolm's book "The Journalist and the Murderer" appropriately depicts McGinniss as an astonishingly flawed and ill-motivated actor in the MacDonald case, regardless of the merits of the specifics of his defense and later conviction. While he undoubtedly behaved in a morally reprehensible and certainly indefensible way concerning journalistic ethics, not "every journalist" can be tarred with the same brush. The extremity of his mishaps and misguided belief that anything is permissible given some "sacred duty" to finish a book go most of the way to highlighting this.
However, perhaps I'm just too stupid or full of myself to see the forest for the journalistic trees.
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