The Journalist and the Murderer
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The Journalist and the Murderer

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  978 ratings  ·  119 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...more
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
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...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
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
I'd always heard about the New Yorker article that delved into the ethics of what author Joe McGinniss supposed 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 ca...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...more
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...more
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...more
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
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.

2011 No 186
What I do is sleazy, and she nailed it. Man, oh man. She covered the lawsuit of a journalist who gets sued for lying to his source, a convicted murderer, about what he was writing. Painfully honest.
this is an unusual one. its main topic, written in essay form, considers the relationship between a journalist and the person he or she is profiling. the book focuses on the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, who was acquitted and then convicted on murdering his wife and their two children. writer Joe McGinness agreed to write a book about MacDonald, with the caveat that MacDonald would receive some of the profits from the book to offset his legal fees. the arrangement included full access to MacDonald...more
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...more
Thing Two
I read Joe McGinniss's Fatal Vision, the real-life story of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, M.D., who in 1979 was convicted of the murder of his pregnant wife and his two young daughters. MacDonald granted McGinniss incredible access -- including allowing McGinniss to live in his beachfront home while MacDonald was in prison -- in return for a share of the profits from the book. When it was published, portraying MacDonald as a cold-blooded killer, MacDonald sued McGinnis for breach of contract.

A fascinating Hall of Mirrors. A lot of inside baseball, but anyone interested in that stuff will find much to chew on. Some critics have blasted Malcolm for her rather shrill tone (to the point that it's become shtick), but I embraced her dry observations. It also raises a question that is sometimes taken for granted: Why would any subject, under any circumstances, want to talk to a journalist when he can't be legally compelled to and has no say whatsoever in the finished product? What's drivin...more
p. 63
Janette, who hadn't spoken very much, now said, "In my work, a patient will come in and say, 'this is the truth about me.' Then later in therapy, a significant and entirely opposite truth may emerge--but they're both true."

"It's the same with the judicial process," Bostwick said. "People feel that it's a search for truth. But I don't think that is its function in this society. I'm convinced that its function is cathartic. It's a means for allowing people to air their differences, to let th
I've been wanting to read this book for a while; it's on the non fiction modern library top 100. It's a fascinating book, dealing with the ethics of writers who undertake interviews with people for the express purpose of writing their story. The case in point is of a journalist who befriended a man accused and then convicted of the murder of his wife and young children. The journalist starts to write the mans story to help prove his innocence but becomes convinced of his friend's guilt during in...more
This book is about the dangers inherent in nonfiction works based on interviews with living people. Malcolm begins with the statement: "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." Which makes it sound like a condemnation of journalists in general.

The reason for the book is a letter Malcolm received from the lawyer for journalist Joe McGinniss, who wrote "Fatal Vision" about Jeffrey MacDonald, a physici...more
Let's play the aesthete: moral quandary aside, Malcolm's prose is a flat-line in terms of style. That there are numerous people involved in a trial is a fact you'd have to extrapolate from outside information about the U.S. legal system, since the various characters who waft in and out of Malcolm's story align almost exactly in description, disappearing into one another with each description of curly grey hair and generic middle-age.

Still, while it might not be the liveliest of texts prose-wise,...more
Jason Cantrell
This was an interesting book, which I read from the perspective of a writer studying it for academic purposes (it's actually been assigned to me by one of the teachers in a Graduate-level class at Rowan University). I mention that I read it from an academic perspective because the book in a way has two stories to tell: the story of the author's experiences and investigations, and the story of the lessons it teaches to writers.

If you read this book not as a writer, but simply as a reader, it's an...more
Janet Malcolm seems to have a taste for lawsuits. Her book "In the Freud Archives" focused on the feud between two psychoanalysts who were wrestling for control of the unpublished Freud papers, and in this book, she reports on an improbably lawsuit as well. What it comes down to is this : Jeff McDonald was accused of having murdered is wife and 2 children sometime. He wanted his story told and was delighted when famed nonfiction author Joe McGinniss is interested. Joe was invited to become part...more
O jornalista e o assassino foi primeiramente publicado, quase que integralmente, na revista The New Yorker em 1989. Explorando a relação entre um homem condenado por assassinato e o jornalista que escreve um livro sobre o caso, Malcolm toca em pontos centrais da relação do escritor com as fontes, a ficção e a própria sensibilidade.

O capitão Jeffrey MacDonald é acusado de matar a mulher grávida e as duas filhas em um acesso de fúria. Ele se declara inocente e é absolvido em um julgamento das forç...more
A great book to read after Fatal Vision. If you like to read nonfiction or have ever written nonfiction (journalism or creative writing), I would recommend it. It brings up a lot points about how ethically sticky it can get, and also how fascinating it is that people will just completely spill the beans when a writer asks them questions. Even still, Jeffrey MacDonald is willing to open up to reporters (or at least still was when Malcolm wrote this book).

I 100% love Janet Malcolm wrote about tha...more
Absolutely fascinating - it's the kind of book that, although brief, changes your view of how things work in the world - in this case, the relationship between journalist and subject. Her style is direct without being spare - and so compelling. Plus, it would be hard to start any piece more succinctly and provocatively than this:

"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. He is a kind of confidence man...more
This is a fascinating allegory about the dangers attendant in the well-known practice of vampirism. The author steps into the cloak and fangs of the batty beast to recreate the crime. Is it objective journalism, or a case of revenge vampirism? What happens when one vampire bites another? Is it really the lust for blood that motivates the vampire, or just that he wants to have his story told? More importantly, isn't it true that the mind can only deal with the uncanny or the banal by stereotyping...more
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“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.” 0 likes
“The subject of a piece of writing has not suffered the tension and anxiety endured by the subject of the "Eichmann experiment" (as it has been called) - on the contrary, he has been on a sort of narcissist's holiday during the period of interviews - but when the moment of peripeteia comes, he is confronted with the same mortifying spectacle of himself flunking a test of character he did not know he was taking.” 0 likes
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