“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“Call me Ishmael.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Allow me to nominate The Journalist and the Murderer‘s opening line for inclusion in the pantheon:
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’s talking, really, about a particular kind of journalism. This is a book about a court case — or two cases — or maybe it’s a book about a journalist — or it’s about the field of journalism — or ethics, or truth, or …
Before I can tell you about this book, it helps to know about another book. A man named Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of murdering his wife and daughter, and a journalist named Joe McGinniss wrote a book about the case. McGinniss took an interest in the case before the trial, and by the time it came to court had wormed his way into MacDonald’s inner circle.
In the summer of 1979, MacDonald and McGinniss were Damon and Pythias. In common with many other subjects and writers, 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 looks.
He actually takes up residence with the defense team, causing some discomfort among the legal team, and has complete access to MacDonald the entire time. When MacDonald is convicted, McGinniss writes him a letter that is frankly heart-wrending:
There could not be a worse nightmare than the one you are living through now — but it is only a phase. Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial …
Jeff, it’s all so fucking awful I can’t believe it yet — the sight of the jury coming in — of the jury polling — of you standing — saying those few words — being led out — and then seeing you in a fucking prison. It’s a hell of a thing — spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey — not for long.
And another letter, and another, repeatedly banging the drum that they are friends and McGinniss can’t wait until the conviction is inevitably overturned and justice prevails … they correspond for four years until McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision, is published. And it is only after publication, in an appearance on Sixty Minutes that MacDonald had agreed to for the book’s publicity tour, that he hears what McGinniss actually thinks and has written for the world’s consumption — namely, that he is not just guilty, but psychotic. Can you imagine learning that your “steadfast ally” believed you to be a publicity-seeking, womanizing, psychopathic killer … by getting receipts dropped on you by Mike Wallace?
And so we enter phase two of this story, because it doesn’t end there. MacDonald sues McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract, and the trial results in a hung jury. And this is where Janet Malcolm comes into the picture, and this book begins to form. She speaks to all kinds of characters from both the first (murder) and second (fraud) trials.
In what I think is a fascinating and absolutely correct choice, she purposely does not closely examine MacDonald’s guilt or innocence of murder, and instead zeroes in on the ethics of the relationships that form between journalists and their subjects. In writing this book, she herself is the journalist, and she personally grapples with the same fundamental issues as McGinniss faced in working with MacDonald … how to get information out of a source without lying to them. Or is lying okay, after all?
Some of her most interesting interviews are those with a pair of journalists who were called as expert witnesses during the fraud case. At least one is comfortable saying on the record, under his own name, that it’s fine for a journalist to flat-out lie in order to get the underlying truth out of the source and therefore extracted for the public good. In a vivid example of exactly this risk, McGinniss stops responding to Malcolm’s questions as soon as she lets him know that her take might be remotely negative. So it’s a real question! You can see the dynamics so easily in political journalism of how access and “leaks” are traded for favorable reporting and advocacy. And yet … those “leaks” reveal actual, valuable information that might not have surfaced otherwise. So …?
Anyway, apparently this is a controversial text among the journalism community and often assigned in journalism studies programs. I see why.
I can’t recommend this enough. Eight stars.