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The Journalist and the Murderer

3.79 of 5 stars 3.79  ·  rating details  ·  1,544 ratings  ·  167 reviews
In two previous books, Janet Malcolm explored the hidden sides of, respectively, institutional psychoanalysis and Freudian biography. In this book, she examines the psychopathology of journalism. Using a strange and unprecedented lawsuit as her larger-than-life example -- the lawsuit of Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, against Joe McGinniss, the author of Fatal Vis ...more
Paperback, 163 pages
Published October 31st 1990 by Vintage (first published January 1st 1990)
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Well, I read this. And as I initially suspected I would, I hated it. I had just finished Fatal Vision, which includes a rebuttal to this very book - and like any good journalism student, I knew I had to read it to get the other side of the story.

I don't take Malcolm's central argument as offensive. It's true that journalists work on very shaky moral ground, all the time. And some of her reporting was very good. Reading McGinniss's letters to MacDonald really surprised me - he seemingly went out
If you were a journalist interviewing an alleged murderer for your story (that you've already spent many years working on), would you say things like "I believe you are innocent" (even though you didn't really believe so) in order to get him to continue talking to you? That is what Joe McGinnis did, and now the murderer is suing him. But McGinnis didn't just tell one lie, he became really good friends with his subject, even becoming part of the defense team during the trial, and continued to sen ...more
In 1979, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters, ages 5 and 2. He had asked journalist Joe McGinniss to write a book about the trial, and McGinniss was not only a close observer, but even became a member of the defense team. MacDonald and McGinniss became friends. But the publication of McGinniss' book Fatal Vision in 1983 revealed McGinniss' belief, hidden until then, that MacDonald was a lying sociopath, guilty of the murders. Furious and ...more
I wish I had the book with me now to quote the first line. It's something like, Any journalist who's not too cocky or ignorant knows that what he does is morally indefensible. The story -- a long essay with a lively plot and lots of reflection -- follows a lawsuit in which a convicted murderer sues a journalist over misrepresentation after allowing the journalist complete access to his defense team in his criminal trial. The case becomes a question of the legal right and more importantly the eth ...more
Jeff was accused of killing his wife and 2 children,
after 8 long years he was convicted.
Joe McGinniss wrote "Fatal Vision" about that murder and trial.

Jeff then sued McGinniss for libel,
a hung jury favored the murderer over the journalist, 5 to 1.
This book is about the deception journalists practice on people to get
"the juicy story."

The book takes a broad view of deception so the story has ideas that extend to other types of relationships.

The author has a keen wit and knows how to write
Lisa Black
As you can see from previous reviews, the author makes a number of bizarre statements in this book.

I do not complain that she stays resolutely neutral-leaning-toward-innocent on Jeffrey MacDonald's guilt, because this book isn't supposed to be about MacDonald's guilt, it's supposed to be about Joe McGuinness's guilt. However MacDonald's guilt is revisited over and over.

My biggest complaint is that the lawsuit is disposed of relatively quickly and then the book is simply a long replaying of int
This is a lazy excuse for a book. It purports to explore the questions of the responsibility of the writer to the subject, truthfulness, libel, and freedom of the press. It consists of a scattered set of summaries of the author's interviews with the lawyers and principles in a court case in which a convicted murderer successfully sued the author of his true crime story 'for fraud and breach of contract - as an attempt "to set a new precedent whereby a reporter or author would be legally obligate ...more
This book was enthralling insofar as it details the story of Joe McGinniss and his mutually manipulative relationship with a convicted murderer. Malcolm also spurs serious thought about the power dynamics inherent in a journalist-subject relationship, and the accompanying ethical implications. But I found my frustration with so much else in the book distracted from the good bits.

I took extreme exception to many of Malcolm's odd--and sometimes, I would argue, nonsensical or deeply contradictory-
I'd always heard about the New Yorker article that delved into the ethics of what author Joe McGinniss supposedly did to the subject of his famous True Crime book, Fatal Vision. Dr Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted multiple murderer, accused McGinniss of lying and otherwise falsely representing himself and his intentions when he imbedded himself in the MacDonald defense. MacDonald successfully brought a lawsuit that was settled out of court.

Very well written with arguments on both sides. For me, I
Colleen O'Neill Conlan
This story started as a two-part piece for The New Yorker. Years ago I read another long New Yorker article by Malcolm, about Sylvia Plath, and was drawn to this plain white cover by virtue of seeing Malcolm's name on the cover.

Jeff MacDonald was accused (and later convicted) of murdering his wife and two young daughters. As a way to raise money for his legal costs and to attempt to tell "the true story," he forges an arrangement with seasoned writer Joe McGinniss, in exchange for full access a
Back in my younger and more vulnerable years, I did high school journalism and one of the big concerns was how to report on minors, considering at least 3/4 of the people in the school were under the age of 18. There's a lot of legal precedent to treat high school journalists with the same privileges as working journalists, but at the same time there is a lot of push back from principals who have concerns about parents calling, or even worse, suing. When we reported we always had to be super awa ...more
Dec 06, 2014 Kate rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Kate by: Ann and Michael- BOTNS
Being hooked on the Serial Podcast, I was intrigued when Ann and Michael discussed this volume on the BOTNS podcast. I knew most of the facts of the case, but I had forgotten the details surrounding Jeffrey MacDonald's conviction for murdering his pregnant wife and their two daughters. Author Joe McGiniss was embedded with MacDonald and the defense during his second trial and ultimately wrote a novel Fatal Vision, which clearly agreed MacDonald was the killer. A lawsuit ensued for libel and Jane ...more
(4.5) This was recommended to me after listening to Serial and I'm glad I checked it out. Goes into depth of the relationship between a journalist and their subject with the MacDonald vs. McGuiness case serving as a backdrop. I found the interviews with other journalists compelling, as well as Malcolm's inner monologue. The bottom line: we all craft narratives of people to help us understand them. Journalists are no different. They have a story to tell. The responsibility of the listener/reader ...more
As a journalist I've often experienced the condition Janet Malcolm dissects so masterfully here--the way my job--and just the act of writing 'nonfiction' itself--requires me to don a persona with interview subjects that will give me the best chance of getting the information I need for a story, or to shape the events I report on into a narrative that will give satisfaction to my readers. Malcolm isn't talking about breaches of journalistic ethics here, but rather, she examines the simple, unavoi ...more
Khris Sellin
I had to reread this after Errol Morris quoted from it so heavily in his book A Wilderness of Error, and since he criticized Malcolm for her not wanting to read all the trial transcripts and reams and reams of evidence and correspondence sent to her by Jeffrey MacDonald trying to convince her of his innocence. But her book was not concerned with his guilt or innocence. That book had already been written. She was focusing on the role of the journalist and his ethical/moral duty, if any, to his su ...more
I'm not sure why it took me this long to finally read this classic, brief book on the ethics of the journalist-subject relationship. This was a book mentioned often by my professors when I was in journalism school, but only now (through the course of research for a PhD program I'm in) did I get a chance to read it.

Malcolm touches on an issue that always struck me, too, while I worked as a reporter. Why do people speak to reporters, especially when the resulting story may be less than flattering
Update: Fascinating book! I was expecting a bit more of her conversations with McGinnis and would have been interested in whether or not her own view of MacDonald's guilt or innocence had changed in the course of the project. It struck me as an oddly chilly book, though completely engrossing.

Apparently Joe McGinnis has written a rebuttal at the end of his new edition of Fatal Vision:


I don't know what to think about this book. It's certainly holding my a
Late last year I made a crack at Fatal Vision, a behemoth of a book about the case against Jeff MacDonald for the brutal murder of his family. Author Joe McGinniss' case is so incredibly biased and poorly argued that I gave up a few hundred pages in.

The Journalist and the Murderer explores the relationship (and subsequent civil suit) between McGinniss and MacDonald as a tool to discuss the relationship of journalist and subject. McGinniss spent years feigning deep friendship with MacDonald whil
This is a quick read that raised valid concerns regarding the morality of journalism. I think I have marked too many essays because all I kept thinking was, 'this is an interesting perspective let down by too many direct quotations, which left the work lacking cohesion'. Then the afterword declared that she has to 'translate' these quotes from 'recorderese' to make them more easily digestible for the reader. And she refused to read all of the case files because, ostensibly, there is no such thin ...more
Kevin A.
Journalists hated this book, and by extension Malcolm, sufficiently that she found few allies in the fourth estate during her own libel trial. But it strikes me as an intelligent and philosophical take on the nature of the relationship between journalist and subject.

One does not need to wholly buy into Malcolm's conclusions to recognize the conflicting agendas of journalist and source. Or to see that the journalist, to preserve access, often will mislead the subject about how much in conflict th
This is a chillingly unvarnished look at the highest-stakes journalistic projects and their perils. I give it four stars because it succeeded at provoking me to think hard about what I do (I'm also a journalist).

That does not mean, however, that I agree with all of Malcolm's points. All journalists should not, as she asserts, acknowledge that what they do is "morally indefensible." People's very lives have been saved by reporters, to say nothing of their efforts in covering civil rights protests
Here Malcolm explores the work of journalism and starts her book with the famous (apparently, in some circles) statement, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." She covers the libel suit an author, McGinnis, is defending himself against for having written a book about a murder trial. McGinnis gave the convicted murderer MacDonald every indication for years verbally and through letters that he thought ...more
Peter Knox
A truly meta-mystery...

Writer Joe McGinnis follows and befriends Jeff MacDonald, on trial for murder of his kids + pregnant wife, and spends years writing to MacDonald, living with him during the trial, and convincing him that he believed he was innocent of the crime.

MacDonald is convicted, goes to jail, and McGinnis writes a huge bestseller 'true'-crime beach read, Fatal Vision, where he says he knew MacDonald was guilty at the start and goes to extreme lengths to cast him in a psychopath role
Peter Boyle
I was one of the millions of listeners recently captivated by Serial, the true crime podcast phenomenon. Thursdays just aren't the same without Sarah Koenig's dogged, self-conscious probing of the unconvincing convict Adnan Syed - I even miss the "Mail Kimp?" jokes. In the course of reading everything I could about the case, this book The Journalist and The Murderer kept popping up - so naturally I had to see what all the fuss was about.

In 1970 Dr Jeffrey MacDonald's wife and kids were brutally
Andrea Scherer
Janet Malcolm does what most journalists do when confronted with an interesting story: she takes out her tape recorder and starts taking notes. When Joe McGinnis and his lawyer approached her to write about McGinnis's libel trial, she took on the story, to explore and expose the problematic relationship between journalists and subjects.

I picked this up because it was recommended for people who like the podcast Serial. I just happen to love Serial (and all other true crime things: novels, docume
Allison Takeuchi
This book is an interesting examination of the relationship between journalist and subject. I have not read "Fatal Visions" (by McGinnis) and do not care to. Like McGinnis and the murder trial of MacDonald, Malcolm has her own interpretations of how the events of writing "Fatal Visions" unfolded. Ultimately there is not a perfect answer; guilty or not guilty, ethical or unethical. The reader must decide if McGinnis is guilty under the law, not whether what he did was right or wrong. The same sho ...more
E. Ce Miller
I read this book because I found myself having a conversation with a fellow writer about it, and then realized I was confusing this text with another, and hadn't actually read Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer". (Foolish, I know.) I am rather obsessed with the radio podcast Serial, which tells the story of a journalist and (possibly innocent, but still convicted) murderer in Baltimore; and this book was recommended as one that would shed an important perspective on journalism in g ...more
Although I had seen the miniseries based on Fatal Vision when I was a child, I was not aware of all the background and complexities of Jeffrey MacDonald's case and trial. For instance, I had no idea that he had sued Joe McGinniss for fraud, or what the nature of what the nature of the relationship between the two had been. Essentially, everything I thought I knew about the case and the man came from Fatal Vision, and I never questioned over the years if there could be a different narrative. So, ...more
Philip Bardach
What starts out as a bit of a dubious thesis regarding the inherent immorality of journalists actually makes for a very persuasive (and brilliantly written) argument of the slippery ethics that journalism constantly finds itself in. The book also doubles as a tight, engrossing narrative of the MacDonald v. McGinniss trial and the issues surrounding the case.
Mary Ronan Drew
Janet Malcolm's book about the MacDonald murders is an examination of the ethical issues of journalists lying to subjects to get them to share information they otherwise would not want the journalist to know. She sees the conduct of Joe McGinniss as he was writing his book about the case, Fatal Vision, as unethical.

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Born 1934Janet Malcolm (born 1934) is an American writer, journalist on staff at The New Yorker magazine, and collagist.[1] She is the author of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981), In the Freud Archives (1984) and The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).
More about Janet Malcolm...
The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes In the Freud Archives Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial

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“Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common. The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter. The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.” 2 likes
“The writer ultimately tires of the subject's self-serving story, and substitutes a story of his own.” 1 likes
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