The Journalist and the Murderer is an examination of the professional choices that shape a work of non-fiction, as well as a rumination on the morality that underpins the journalistic enterprise. The journalist in question is the author Joe McGinniss; the murderer is the former Special Forces Captain Jeffery MacDonald, who became the subject of McGinniss’ 1983 book Fatal Vision.
When Malcolm’s work first appeared in March, 1989, as a two-part serialization in The New Yorker magazine, it caused a sensation, becoming the occasion for wide-ranging debate within the news industry.
Malcolm’s thesis, and the most widely quoted passage from The Journalist and the Murderer, is presented in the book’s opening paragraph: “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.” She continues:
- He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”
The journalist and the murderer
Malcolm took as her subject the popular non-fiction writer Joe McGinniss; McGinniss had become a best-selling author with his 1969 work The Selling of the President. Having received a sizable advance payment for the true crime project that would become Fatal Vision, McGinniss struck up a close friendship with the accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald.
MacDonald, an Army physician, had been charged with the 1970 murders of his twenty-six year-old pregnant wife Collette and their two young daughters. McGinniss secured MacDonald’s cooperation in turning his story into a book: the journalist would report from both the court room and MacDonald’s side. McGinniss shared housing with his book’s subject, exercised with him, and sat beside him at the defense table during his trial.. As Malcolm writes, “They clothed their complicated business together in the mantle of friendship—in this case, friendship of a particularly American cast, whose emblems of intimacy are watching sports on television, drinking beer, running, and classifying women according to their looks.” Within a month of MacDonald’s conviction, the journalist began a series of letters. Malcolm quotes McGinniss’ expressions of sympathy—”any fool can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial…it was utter madness”—as well as his tacit assurances that the book would help win his release: “it’s a hell of a thing—spend the summer making a new friend and the bastards come and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey—not for long.”
In fact, as McGinniss would later admit, he had become swiftly and easily convinced of MacDonald’s guilt during the trial; in the same months that he wrote warm letters to the now-jailed MacDonald, he was also writing to his editor Morgan Entrekin, discussing the technical problem of not spoiling his work’s effect by making MacDonald, in the book, appear “too loathsome too soon.”
Throughout the years of interviews, as Malcolm writes, “MacDonald imagined he was ‘helping’ McGinniss write a book exonerating him of his crime.” What she terms MacDonald’s “dehoaxing” took place in “a particularly dramatic and cruel manner”—a 1983 taping of the CBS news program 60 Minutes. As host Mike Wallace read aloud portions of the now-completed Fatal Vision, the cameras broadcast MacDonald’s look of “shock and utter discomposure.”
Pathological narcissists and auto-fictionalizers
In the published Fatal Vision, McGinniss depicted MacDonald as a “womanizer” and a “publicity-seeker,” as well as a sociopath who, unbalanced by amphetamines, had murdered his family. But MacDonald in person seemed sturdy, unremarkable, and incapable of such a crime. McGinniss drew upon the works of a number of social critics, including the moralist Christopher Lasch, to construct a portrait of MacDonald as a “pathological narcissist.”
But as presented by Malcolm, what drove McGinniss to this strategy were professional and structural liabilities—MacDonald’s “lack of vividness,” his drawbacks as the real-life figure who would serve as main character for his book. MacDonald, charismatic in person, lost vigor on the page. As other journalists noted, when interviewed MacDonald could “sound like an accountant.”
- “MacDonald’s uninterestingness is not unusual at all…When a journalist fetches up against someone like [him], all he can do is flee and hope that a more suitable subject will turn up soon. In the MacDonald-McGinniss case we have an instance of a journalist who apparently found out too late that the subject of his book was not up to scratch—not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers, like Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould and Truman Capote‘s Perry Smith, on whom the “non-fiction novel” depends for its life…The solution that McGinniss arrived at for dealing with MacDonald’s characterlessness was not a satisfactory one, but it had to do.”
In Malcolm’s depiction, it was in order to conceal this deficit that McGinniss turned to social treatises like Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. This, to her, is McGinniss’ professional sin. His moral sin—and the basis for her broader journalistic critique—was to pretend to a belief in MacDonald’s innocence, long after he’d become convinced of the man’s guilt. This is the “morally indefensible” position she speaks of on the book’s first page.
The book provoked a wide-ranging professional debate when it was serialized in The New Yorker magazine. As The New York Times reported in March 1989, Malcolm’s “declarations provoked outrage among authors, reporters and editors, who rushed last week to distinguish themselves from the journalists Miss Malcolm was describing. They accused her of tarring all in the profession when she was really aiming at everyone but themselves.” Although roundly criticized upon first publication—by both newspaper reviewers and media observers like former CBS News president Fred Friendly, who descried the book’s “weakness” and “crabbed vision”—it was also vigorously defended by a number of fellow writers. These included the journalists Jessica Mitford, Nora Ephron, Gore Vidal,, and Susan Orlean who “endorsed Malcolm’s thesis as a necessary evil.” As Douglas McCollam wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “In the decade after Malcolm’s essay appeared, her once controversial theory became received wisdom.”
The book has since become regarded as a classic, and ranks ninety-seventh in The Modern Library’s list of the twentieth century’s “100 Best Works of Nonfction.” Ironically, it appears just one spot below Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the first non-fiction novel and originator of the true-crime genre to which Fatal Vision belongs; a quarter-century earlier, it too had been serialized in The New Yorker.
- ^ McCollam, Douglas, Columbia Journalism Review, “You Have The Right to Remain Silent,” January, February, 2003.
- ^ Scardino, Albert, The New York Times. “Ethic, Reporters and The New Yorker,” March 21. 1989. “Janet Malcolm, a staff writer for The New Yorker, returned her magazine to the center of the long-running debate over ethics in journalism this month…Her declarations provoked outrage among authors, reporters and editors, who rushed last week to distinguish themselves from the journalists Miss Malcolm was describing.”
- ^ Malcolm, Janet, “The Journalist and the Murder,” New York: Knopf, 1990. p. 1.
- ^ Malcolm, p. 19.
- ^ CBS News, 48 Hours, November 11, 2002.
- ^ Malcolm, p. 22.
- ^ Malcolm, p. 21.
- ^ Malcolm, p. 34-6.
- ^ Malcolm, p. 223
- ^ Malcolm, p. 30.
- ^ Malcolm, ibid.
- ^ Malcolm, p. 31.
- ^ Malcolm, p. 30. In an interesting passage, Malcolm observes, “MacDonald imagined he was ‘helping’ McGinniss write a book exonerating him of his crime, and presenting him as a kind of kitsch hero (‘loving father and husband,’ ‘dedicated physician,’ ‘overachiever’). When, instead, McGinniss wrote a book charging him with the crime, and presenting him as a kitsch villain (‘publicity-seeker,’ ‘womanizer,’ ‘latent homosexual’), MacDonald was stunned.”
- ^ Malcolm, pps. 28, 72-3.
- ^ Malcolm, p.68.
- ^ Malcolm, p. 70.
- ^ Malcolm, pps. 71-3.
- ^ Scardino, Albert, The New York Times. “Ethic, Reporters, and The New Yorker,” March 21, 1989.
- ^ Friendly, Fred W., The New York Times Book Review, “Was Trust Betrayed,” February 25, 1990; also Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, The New York Times, “Deception and Journalism: How Far to Go for the Story,” February 22, 1990.
- ^ Mitford and Ephron may be found in Friendly, “Was Trust Betrayed”; Vidal and Orlean in McCollam.
- ^ McCollam, Douglas, Columbia Journalism Review, “You Have The Right To Remain Silent,”January, February, 2003. McCollam writes, “Gore Vidal called source betrayal ‘the iron law’ of journalism.”
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ The Modern Library 100 Best
- Janet Malcolm
- Jeffrey MacDonald
- Joe McGinniss
- Fatal Vision
- Media ethics
- Journalism ethics and standards