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The Journalist and the Murderer

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  3,276 ratings  ·  349 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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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
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  ·  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
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
Sep 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It’s such a treat to read a well-written book. I have nothing at all to say about her factual assertions, but this is a masterclass in exploring the ethics of journalism (and law to a certain extent). And she writes it with an open and nimble mind. It’s probably required reading for journalism students—hopefully it is.
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  ·  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
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
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
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
Richard Moss
Aug 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
Despite being written 30 years ago, in an age before social media, podcasts and (the concept of) "fake news", Janet Malcolm's reflection on journalistic morality and true crime still has resonance and bite.

The Journalist and the Murderer starts with a provocative opening sentence: "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."

Her particular focus is a court case which followed involving convicted murderer Jef
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.
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.
Bryan Metzger
Jul 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read the entirety of this book in one sitting today, a feat at once uncommon and satisfactory, but admittedly enabled by the fact that this 163 page book is in fact an essay originally published in the pages of The New Yorker. Malcolm takes a fascinating saga involving a libel lawsuit and gruesome murder and uses it to make a general point about the problematic relationship between the journalist and the subject. In the process, she likens the journalist to a con-man or swindler who inevitably ...more
Lauren Hawkins
Dec 26, 2019 rated it liked it
I started this nonfiction tale out on a good note—although I went into it thinking that the story would be more of a true crime narrative than an examination of the journalist-subject relationship, I was still interested. 

Over time though, the story dragged on even though it's only 163 pages, which is never a good sign. I blame this mostly on there not seeming to be a point to the book as a whole.

I understand that Malcolm is examining this relationship that all journalists face with their subjec
Alison Hardtmann
Mar 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library-book
In The Journalist and the Murderer Janet Malcolm examines the relationship between the journalist and his subject, through the example of Joe McGinness and Jeffrey MacDonald, the subject of McGinness's best-selling book, Fatal Vision. McGinness was invited into the inner circle of MacDonald's defense team and he spent hours with MacDonald, and he continued to write friendly letters to MacDonald after MacDonald's conviction for the murder of his wife and daughters. When MacDonald read the book, h ...more
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
This is a masterpiece of non-fiction, on so many levels. Gah!
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.
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
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
Joe Rodeck
Sep 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  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:


I don't know what to think about this book. It's certainly holding my a
Sunny Yu
Feb 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In the classic The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm argues that in the encounter between the journalists and their subjects, the relationship dynamic is always dominated by the journalists, who end up betraying the interviewees no matter how they behave in the actual interview process. Malcolm looked into the MacDonald v. McGinniss case and bases her argument on the disappointment and rage that typical journalism subjects experience. Although Malcolm’s argument is overly pessimistic, t ...more
Matthew Ogborn
Jan 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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.
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
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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-fi

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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.” 19 likes
“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, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” 8 likes
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