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The Journalist and the Murderer

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  2,412 Ratings  ·  246 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 1990)
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Katherine
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
Jimmy
May 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jessica
Jun 10, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: newbie defense attorneys; con art connoisseurs
I didn't find the subject matter or main character particularly engaging, but Janet Malcolm could make a trip to the tag agency interesting to me. This is the story of defense attorney Sheila McGough, who in the 1980s gets so caught up in rabid defense of her con artist client that she ends up being implicated in one of his schemes, convicted of a felony, going to prison, and being disbarred. Malcolm finds McGough a compelling if offputting figure, but I never did. Sheila is dull and sounds like ...more
Lobstergirl
Apr 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
James
Aug 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
...more
stefan
Nov 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
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
...more
Lobstergirl
May 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: law

The crime of Sheila McGough was being Sheila McGough: an astonishingly naive and pathologically idealistic rookie lawyer who had the misfortune to take on charming, relentless con man Bob Bailes as a client. McGough defended Bailes to the point of ridiculous self-destruction, and ended up being charged and found guilty of federal offenses related to Bailes's own fraudulent cons in northern Virginia. After serving time and being released from prison, she became convinced that the government had w
...more
Rachael
Nov 30, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mommalibrarian
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
Cathleen
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.
Steve Kettmann
My San Francisco Chronicle review first published in 1999:

THE CRIME OF SHEILA McGOUGH By Janet Malcolm Alfred A. Knopf; 164 pages; $22
Not many contemporary novelists, let alone nonfiction writers, stamp their work as their own the way Janet Malcolm does, and her latest book is no exception. As always, her fans will be enraptured and the rest of us will be left shaking our heads in quiet amazement. Malcolm could squeeze out a couple of hundred pages on watching paint dry and no doubt make the acc
...more
Colleen O'Neill Conlan
Jan 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: cultural-studies
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
Khris Sellin
Sep 05, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
GT
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
...more
Emma
Sep 05, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Casey
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Natalie Cannon
Jul 08, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Margaret
Jan 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
poingu
Jun 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Peter Boyle
Mar 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Koeeoaddi
Oct 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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:
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage...

~~~

I don't know what to think about this book. It's certainly holding my a
...more
Kevin A.
Feb 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
...more
Caroline
Nov 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2013
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
Kate
Dec 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Jake
Dec 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: true-crime
(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
Tim Andrews
Feb 22, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Delightfully written with multiple layers of irony (fortunately only subtly alluded to by the author; we were spared the sledgehammer many others would employ), this should be required reading not only as an incisive insight into the world of media and journalism, but its analysis into interpersonal relationships, psychology, and indeed our sense of self.

Highly recommended.
Philip Bardach
Jun 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
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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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
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“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.” 18 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.” 7 likes
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