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The Journalist and the Murderer

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  2,795 ratings  ·  296 reviews
In The Journalist And The Murderer, Janet Malcolm examines the psychopathology of journalism. She delves into the always uneasy, sometimes tragic relationship that exists between journalist and subject.
Paperback, 163 pages
Published January 15th 2004 by Granta Books (first published 1990)
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3.80  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,795 ratings  ·  296 reviews

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Jun 25, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Apr 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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
I love Malcolm's intelligence and her analytical mind. This book is a bit more complex and convoluted than the book on Jeffrey Masson -- and so is not quite as good. The Afterword is especially indulgent. So if you haven't read Malcolm, read In the Freud Archives first.
Nov 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Lisa Black
May 05, 2015 rated it liked it
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
Jul 09, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Ben Loory
Jan 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The court case itself is fascinating—I love the idea of a murderer suing a journalist for lying to him in order to get to the truth of his case—but mostly this whole book just made me want to read Fatal Vision instead (a lot of this just felt like a long book review). I did love the part about "tape recorderese" and how part of a journalist's job these days is to rephrase people's actual (stumbling, repetitive, constantly tangentializing and largely incoherent) speech into "real" organized quota ...more
James Hayman
Jul 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating addendum to Joe McGuiness's Fatal Vision.
Sep 05, 2014 rated it it was ok
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
Mar 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Fascinating examination of the dynamic between crime reporters/authors and their subjects, as well as the resulting ethical questions.
"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness..." (p. 3)
Whoa. Strong words that set the tone for a controversial debate, centered on one incendiary case.
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Finally read this classic and it is great. A remarkably nuanced take on the relationship between writer and subject in the non-fiction world with no easy answers. It made me think and that's always a good thing.
Anders Furze
Oct 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a masterpiece of non-fiction, on so many levels. Gah!
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
Khris Sellin
Sep 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Joe Rodeck
Sep 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of murdering his wife and kids and who invented a Manson Murders cover fiction, sues Joe McGinnis who wrote his story in Fatal Vision. (One should watch the movie or read Fatal Vision first.)

Partial premise: If Freedom of the Press means Freedom to Lie, perhaps its not something worth fighting for. Basically, the author cozies up to his subject with sympathy and beer buddy behavior all the while fixing to do him in.

It's about journalism ethics, freedom of the pres
Jan 19, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
An interview, after all, is only as good as the journalist who conducts it, and I felt—to put it bluntly—that Keeler, with his prepared questions and his newspaper-reporter's directness, would not get from his subjects the kind of authentic responses that i try to elicit from mine with a more Japanese technique.
Reading this is like refraining from showering for three or more days in order to conduct more intellectual activities. Some benefit is likely to have been gained, but eventually t
Matthew Ogborn
Jan 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Short, sharp, shock to the system especially for a journalist like me whose stock in trade are in-depth interviews and books. Malcolm is very adept at explaining the curious balance between journalist/author and subject. Her writing style is fascinating and I will seek out more of her books now.
Sep 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book is next-level good. It feels like a satire of In Cold Blood with psychoanalytic leanings, accompanied by Janet Malcolm's brutal character analyses and stabbing insights.
Zhi Xin Lee
Mar 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The lawsuit of MacDonald vs McGinniss is a fascinating one: MacDonald, a convicted murderer of his pregnant wife and two children, sues the journalist, McGinniss, whom he had enlisted to write about him in the process of the murder trial, under the assumption that the book would be a portrayal of his innocence. It wasn't. Despite a contract that released McGinniss to write whatever he wanted, MacDonald thought he had enough of a case to sue McGinniss for fraud. The result was a hung jury; McGinn ...more
Mohammad Ali Abedi
May 03, 2018 rated it it was ok
I got introduced to this book due to some online debate on the podcast multi-episode of “Reply All” called “On the Inside”. I love that podcast but greatly disliked that book, because I felt that the journalist befriends a prisoner, and then abuses his trust to try to tell a sensationalist tale. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and it seemed that this book approached a similar journalistic abuse.
Written in 1989, it was about the author Joe McGinness’ trust abuse of suspected murderer Jeffrey R.
Jul 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An exceptionally well-written book that reopens the bizarre case of convicted murderer Dr. Jeffrey McDonald with a new twist. Malcolm dissects the motives and actions of writer Joe McGinnis who collaborated with the subject during his trial for the murder of his wife and two young daughters and ultimately betrayed him in his best-seller Fatal Vision. Many journalists may take offence that one of their own has written an expose on how sources can unwittingly be duped and exploited. The great iron ...more
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2017
I love this book. The central argument really challenged me. I'm a journalist who spends a long time with subjects. You do, over the course of a year, develop a different kind of relationship than you would in a breaking news situation. Subjects eventually forget that you're writing down everything they say. I've never gone so far as McInnis to fake a friendship, all the while cultivating a fanning portrait, but I find Malcom's central challenge one worth remembering as I do this work. We do use ...more
Ksenia Anske
Apr 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Like a hammer on my head, this book. Glad I read it. Now I understand the unease I felt when I was written about, and the startled reactions of my subjects after they read what I wrote about them. Journalism is a double-edged sword, and the moral dilemma of the obligation to tell the truth versus the factuality of the truth as seen by the journalist and the means by which it was recorded (or not) and the ways it can be interpreted by the audience is a game you have to know how to dance. A misste ...more
Jack Heath
Synopsis: the author writes a rebuttal to Joe McGuiness (Fatal Vision) re Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of the 1970 murders of family.
Jun 15, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, women, kindle
O posfácio da edição brasileira é muito mais interessante do que toda enrolada do resto do livro, incluindo o próprio posfácio da autora.

Chato e meio perdido no que se propõe.
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Goodreads Librari...: Combine Editions 2 214 Oct 13, 2018 10:10PM  
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Janet Malcolm is a journalist, biographer, collagist, and staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of In the Freud Archives and The Crime of Sheila McGough , as well as biographies of Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Anton Chekhov.

The Modern Library chose her controversial book The Journalist and the Murderer — with its infamous first line — as one of the 100 best non-fiction
“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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” 17 likes
“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.” 6 likes
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