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The Journalist and the Murderer

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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 Vision, a book about the crime -- she delves into the always uneasy, sometimes tragic relationship that exists between journalist and subject. In Malcolm's view, neither journalist nor subject can avoid the moral impasse that is built into the journalistic situation. When the text first appeared, as a two-part article in The New Yorker, its thesis seemed so radical and its irony so pitiless that journalists across the country reacted as if stung.

Her book is a work of journalism as well as an essay on journalism: it at once exemplifies and dissects its subject. In her interviews with the leading and subsidiary characters in the MacDonald-McGinniss case -- the principals, their lawyers, the members of the jury, and the various persons who testified as expert witnesses at the trial -- Malcolm is always aware of herself as a player in a game that, as she points out, she cannot lose. The journalist-subject encounter has always troubled journalists, but never before has it been looked at so unflinchingly and so ruefully. Hovering over the narrative -- and always on the edge of the reader's consciousness -- is the MacDonald murder case itself, which imparts to the book an atmosphere of anxiety and uncanniness. The Journalist and the Murderer derives from and reflects many of the dominant intellectual concerns of our time, and it will have a particular appeal for those who cherish the odd, the off-center, and the unsolved.

163 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1990

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About the author

Janet Malcolm

24 books382 followers
Janet Malcolm was 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 works of the 20th century.

Her most recent book is Forty-one False Starts .

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 457 reviews
Profile Image for Katherine.
350 reviews12 followers
September 10, 2012
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 of his way to make Jeff think that he was still his best friend, and that I found upsetting. In fact, I would say Malcolm's case is pretty well-written and thought-provoking, if it wasn't for these couple of sentences:

"I have read little of the material he has sent - trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports. A document arrives, I glance at it, see words like "bloody syringe," "blue threads," "left chest puncture," "unidentified fingerprints," "Kimberly's urine," and add it to the pile. I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald's guilt or innocence from the material. It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower-- it depends on how you read the evidence. If you start out with a presumption of guilt, you read the documents one way, and another way if you presume his innocence. The material does not 'speak for itself.'"

WHAT??? With those sentences, Malcolm lost any credibility she had with me. Why? Because she simply did not do her job. She made a claim she could not support, NOT due to lack of material, but because she was lazy. She wouldn't read the physical evidence. As anyone who has read Fatal Vision knows, as anyone who was at that trial or on that jury or who worked on that case for years knows, the reason people think MacDonald is guilty is the physical evidence. The fact that she could just write all of that off -- that she thought it was below her, even though it convinced an entire jury and numerous judges and investigators, even though what hung in the balance was the murder of three people -- makes me feel nothing but disgust for her and this book.

Plain and simple, she was sloppy. And the first rule that all reporters learn is that if you screw up your reporting, you will lose your credibility. Always call that extra source. Always walk that extra block. Always walk up to one more person. Always READ ALL THE EVIDENCE.

So that pissed me off. As well as this quote: "the journalist confines himself to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others."

What an idiotic statement. Did she not just write a whole book on how messy and ungentlemanly journalism can be? Oy vey. I cannot handle this woman.

UPDATE 9/9/2012: I've been thinking more about this book since reading A Wilderness of Error and I wanted to add to it. The truth is that I DO find parts of Malcolm's central argument offensive. The first line: "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."

Um, no. I'm a journalist and I think what I do is completely morally defensible. I ask people questions, I get answers and I write them down. I don't take statements out of context. I make my intentions clear to every interview subject. I write what I learn, truthfully. And if I break any of these rules, I deserve to be called out for it. Journalism is central to truth. It is central to the weeding out of corruption, deception and ignorance. When journalists and their work contribute to those things instead of fighting them, then they are NOT journalists and what they do is NOT journalism. Janet Malcolm's self-indulgent book does nothing to help elucidate the motives of journalism. Instead, it proves her to be a writer more committed to writing out every convoluted thought in her head than to finding the truth. I find her book to be morally indefensible, not my profession.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,686 reviews1,218 followers
April 26, 2010
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 feeling betrayed, MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud. As evidence he produced many sympathetic letters McGinniss had written to him in prison, proclaiming his outrage over the verdict. That civil trial ended in a hung jury; McGinniss eventually settled and paid MacDonald $325,000. Enter journalist Janet Malcolm, whom McGinniss and his legal team solicited in 1987 to write about MacDonald v. McGinniss. Malcolm accepted, but after a five-hour interview McGinniss bailed on the project. Malcolm wrote about the case anyway, in two long New Yorker articles which became this book.

This is great journalism and wonderful writing, clear and accessible but sometimes also surprising and provocative. Malcolm is a brilliant observer of human behavior and motivations and she's not above noting her own errors of perception or flawed assumptions. Looking at the McGinniss case provides a pretext for her to examine all feature journalism as a moral enterprise, and a power relationship between journalist and subject in which the former holds all the cards. (She begins by comparing this relationship to Stanley Milgram's experiment in which test subjects were instructed to administer what they thought were increasingly painful electric shocks to others, after which they were "debriefed" or "dehoaxed," told the real purpose of the experiment, which was to see how cruelly authoritarian they could be. The journalist's subject goes through a similarly disorienting and humiliating dehoaxing when he reads the journalist's expose, she argues.) Journalism is "morally indefensible." So how are we to take her journalism? Her confessional tone makes her seem deeply honest and frank, yet she also warns us that much "confessional work...confesses something different from what the confessor thinks he is confessing." (This is a reference to one of McGinniss' earlier books.)

In Malcolm's telling, McGinniss and his lawyers do not come off well. The writers William F. Buckley Jr. and Joseph Wambaugh, testifying on behalf of McGinniss, do not come off well. Buckley, asked by opposing counsel to define a lie, begins a discourse on Sissela Bok and Thomas Aquinas. Malcolm's discussion of MacDonald is fascinating; she is agnostic on the subject of his guilt or innocence, preferring to focus on his rhetorical blandness and the ways in which Fatal Vision foisted bizarre yet hackneyed notions of psychopathology onto him. She is struck by the graceful way he eats vending machine powdered doughnuts in a prison interview: "He handled the doughnuts - breaking off pieces and unaccountably keeping the powdered sugar under control - with the delicate dexterity of a veterinarian fixing a broken wing." Hopeful that Malcolm will write a flattering book about him, MacDonald sends her long, "unrelievedly windy" missives. "A terrible starkness and bottom-of-life direness permeated these unutterably boring letters that was like the obliterating reality of the paintings of Francis Bacon." Trying to understand how such a supposedly pathological killer can be so vapid, she finds an explanation in literature, from Philip Roth's The Counterlife: "Most people...are absolutely unoriginal, and [the novelist's:] job is to make them appear otherwise." Truman Capote and Joseph Mitchell got lucky: they found in Perry Smith and Joe Gould members "of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers." McGinniss, realizing he had a dud in MacDonald - a character unsuited to good nonfiction, rather than a natural Raskolnikov - and could not "prod him into being interesting," succumbed to an unjustified degree of artifice. In most journalism, Malcolm writes, "the writer ultimately tires of the subject's self-serving story, and substitutes a story of his own." As long as Malcolm is the journalist, I wouldn't complain.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
511 reviews686 followers
November 25, 2011
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 send the murderer effusively friendly and encouraging letters in jail. Time and again he sided with the defense in letters and personal communications, while behind their backs he was convinced that the subject was guilty, and writing a book about it.

Janet Malcolm does a good job of bringing out the gray areas in this case. Malcolm clearly sides with MacDonald (the alleged/convicted murderer), but was still able to write intelligently about the opposite argument. I found myself siding with the journalist (McGinnis) at first. My belief was that the journalist owes his subject nothing, but he owes his readers the truth. That was his first job: to get at the truth, and how he got there may not be pretty, but is in service of something greater. Also, we don't like people who betray us, but betrayal in itself isn't a crime! Even though cheating on your girlfriend might be wrong, one shouldn't be able to sue for it. Perhaps McGinnis was a bad friend, even a bad person, but he shouldn't have answer for it in court because what it comes down to is whether or not his book qualified as libel, not whether or not he was a good friend!

But I also began to see the other side more as I read the book. One of the things that worried me was that even though McGinnis went to all the trouble of lying to his subject in order to get him to speak freely, it doesn't seem like he ended up with that much more proof than he started with. His case sounded weak (diet pills? ONE incidence of MacDonald losing his anger/using violence in his whole lifetime?). I felt that if he was gonna lie in order to prove this man guilty, then he should at least find something to justify such means. And if he didn't, he should man up and admit that he didn't. Instead, it seems he might have at one point decided that MacDonald was guilty (perhaps because it would make a more interesting book) and went on a witch hunt to find reasons to justify that decision.

As with the best nonfiction, I'm left thinking more than before, though not sure what to think.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,663 followers
September 29, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Mommalibrarian.
715 reviews45 followers
July 9, 2013
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 obligated to disclose his state of mind and attitude toward his subject during the process of writing and research."" The author maintains his "only obligation from the beginning was to the truth" and that the legal precedent set by a decision against him would result in a "grave threat to established journalistic freedoms".

Lofty stuff - sounded promising. What you get - boring, inconclusive conversations and in the end no actual thoughtful parsing of the issues and no inspired conclusions. The only good thing is that the book is ony 163 pages.
Profile Image for Emma.
136 reviews3 followers
September 7, 2014
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 thing as truth so why bother? If for no other reason than to better understand the rationale of 'the journalist' I would think.
Profile Image for AC.
1,645 reviews
September 4, 2018
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.
Profile Image for James.
297 reviews64 followers
September 22, 2007
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 snappy phrases.
Here are some samples:

"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."

"Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way..."

"Evidently, to be a good trial lawyer you have to be a good hater."

"The concept of the psychopath is an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil-"
it is merely a restatement of the mystery...

"He sounded, chillingly, like a man talking about a woman he once loved but now finds pathetic.
Why was he telling me this?"

"I always knew that joe had the option of not believing jeff, and jeff knew that, too,
but what I didnt know was that joe had the option of disliking jeff.
And joe not only never gave a hint that this was the way he felt
but did just the opposite: he gave every indication that he liked jeff."

"The flaw in Mcginniss's character may be that he doesn't know how to be anything but ingratiating.
But , unlike jeff, joe also wants to pass judgment on everything."

Profile Image for Lisa Black.
Author 21 books483 followers
May 5, 2015
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 interviews with an (albeit impressive) amount of people, but it's difficult to see any direction or purpose to this endless supply of their thoughts and opinions.

End summary: Did Joe McGuinness blow a lot of smoke up MacDonald's bottom in order to get the material to write the book? Yes. Was it scummy? Yes. Was it illegal? I don't think so. MacDonald was a well educated grown-up on trial for a brutal crime, who knew McGuinness was a writer he had not commissioned and that he would not have any editorial control. That alone should have alerted MacDonald. The fact that it did not might be the most compelling evidence for the 'narcissistic' diagnosis which Malcolm so disdains.
Profile Image for Michael.
538 reviews49 followers
September 28, 2020
(September 2020): The FX miniseries documentary A Wilderness of Error, based on Errol Morris' deeply flawed re-examination of the Jeffrey MacDonald murders, compelled me to revisit -- for the fourth time! -- Janet Malcolm's now-legendary treatise on the subject-journalist relationship. Every reading brings new thoughts, reveals new layers.

This time around I'm struck by Malcolm's assertion that authors need characters to write about, not human beings, who are generally boring, contradictory, and unreflective in ways that are wholly unhelpful to the writer who is trying to create art. The nonfiction writer is stuck with the people he's got. In the case of Joe McGinniss, he started searching for depth in MacDonald that wasn't there, and so -- in Malcolm's rendering -- he was forced to supply it himself:

"In the MacDonald-McGinniss case we have an instance of a journalist who apparently found out too late (or let himself find out too late) that the subject of his book was not up to scratch -- not suitable for a work of nonfiction, not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers, like Joseph Mitchell's Joe Gould or Truman Capote's Perry Smith, on whom the New Journalism and the 'nonfiction novel' depend for their life. MacDonald was simply a guy like the rest of us, with nothing to offer but a tedious and improbable story about his innocence of a bad crime."

I'm willing to bet that what really rankles MacDonald, who almost certainly did everything the government charged him with and a jury convicted him for, wasn't that it dawned on his best bud Joe that in fact Jeff was a stone-cold murderer and said as much in Fatal Vision without leading him on. It's that good ol' Joe didn't give MacDonald the portrayal he was seeking, the intravenous validation that is the lifeblood of every toxic narcissist. Joe McGinniss didn't play by MacDonald's rules, which were always stacked against him. Yeah, yeah, I killed my family, but how come I didn't get the Ted Bundy treatment? I'm handsome and brilliant, dammit!


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 driving that motivation?

"Like the dupe in the Milgram deception, the naive subject of a book becomes so caught up in the enterprise and so emotionally invested in it that he simply cannot conceive of it in any terms other than those the writer has set for it. As the Milgram subject imagined he was 'helping' someone to learn, so MacDonald imagined he was 'helping' McGinniss write a book exonerating him of the crime, and presenting him as a kind of kitsch hero...When, instead, McGinniss wrote a book charging him with the crime, and presenting him as a kitsch villain...MacDonald was stunned." (p. 30)

Quoting author Joseph Wambaugh: "I've dealt with sociopaths, murderers, other horrible people -- as a cop and as a writer -- and by no means would I always tell them the truth, though I wouldn't lie to them. What's the difference between a lie and an untruth? Simple. With a lie, there's malice involved, there's ill will. With an untruth, there isn't." (p. 103)

"As I listened to Lucille Dillon, I felt more acutely conscious than ever of the surrealism that is at the heart of journalism. People tell journalists their stories as characters in dreams deliver their elliptical messages: without warning, without context, without concern for how odd they will sound when the dreamer awakens and repeats them." (p. 114)

"The reader extends a kind of credit to the writer of nonfiction which he doesn't extend to the writer of fiction, and for this reason the writer of nonfiction has to be punctilious about delivering the goods for which the reader has prepaid with his forbearance. Of course, there is no such thing as a work of pure factuality, any more than there is one of pure fictitiousness. As every work of fiction draws on life, so every work of nonfiction draws on art." (p. 154)
Profile Image for Natalie Cannon.
Author 7 books18 followers
July 9, 2016
[Trigger Warnings for murder and swearing]

Oh God. This book.

Here's a summary, through which my tone will convey what I thought about this shindig: As noted later by numerous psychologists, army doctor Macdonald has diagnosable narcissistic and antisocial tendencies. His masculinity is as fragile as a wedding topper. His wife Collette goes back to school, and he feels threatened about it. Macdonald takes some meth, murders pregnant Collette and their two younger daughters, and blames it on some hippies who somehow broke into a military base, murdered his family (while leaving him alive), and escaped without anyone seeing them or leaving any evidence behind. All while on acid.

The news story gets big. MacDonald goes on a talk show and acts like everything is fine, which is weird because his family literally just died. MacDonald hires noted inside scoop lover Joe McGinniss to write a book about his upcoming court case, giving McGinniss access to the entire defense team and experience. McGinniss signs a contract saying he can write what he wants as long as he maintains MacDonald's personal integrity. While preparing the case, MacDonald and McGinniss become best friends with homoerotic undertones. It's uncomfortable.

During the murder trial, McGinniss slowly realizes that MacDonald might have actually murdered his family. This doesn't sink in until after MacDonald is convicted, sent to jail, and starts exchanging tearful love letters to McGinniss.

The letters last four years, during which McGinniss' replies become colder and colder and MacDonald more desperate. The letters become even more uncomfortable because McGinniss is obviously exploiting MacDonald for information and book rights. MacDonald thinks that McGinniss' book will be about MacDonald as a Tortured Innocent. McGinniss is disappointed that MacDonald is not Hannibal Lector and instead a slightly charismatic, macho jerk who likes to be the center of media attention. McGinniss publishes his book, FATAL VISION, that paints MacDonald as Hannibal Lector anyway.

MacDonald finds out about this after the book is published, while he is being interviewed on live television about it. MacDonald sues McGinniss for violating his contract where he super pinky promised to maintain MacDonald's integrity. The jury at the trial, reporters/the journalist community, Malcolm (our erstwhile author), and literally everyone on the freakin' planet think McGinniss made a Dick Move, even if MacDonald did murder his family. McGinniss does not admit to the fact that he was a Dick and instead laughs a lot on live television. This makes everyone dislike him more. McGinniss and MacDonald settle the suit out of court, with hefty paychecks. MacDonald also gets a lot of hate mail while in prison. The End.


Oh God. Yeah, so that's the book, except for some very weird rabbit trails into love affairs, out-of-date Freudian psychology, inaccurate allusions to Dickens and Romantic British literature, New England classism, and the basic morals of nonfiction writing, which can all be boiled down to the following: Don't Be A Dick About It, Writers Sometimes Have To Slightly Agree With People To Do Their Job Even If They Don't Actually Agree, and If You Get Really Chummy With A Subject, You Should Give Them A Head's Up If You're Going To Shit On Them In An Article/Book. The only people who made a modicum of sense were the prosecution lawyer, the two journalists interviewed in the trial, an elderly black woman on the jury, and an elderly Jewish psychologist with a working class background.

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Rachael.
Author 46 books68 followers
November 30, 2013
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? It never ceased to amaze me how easy it was to convince someone to talk to me, even if it was a difficult or sensitive topic. I always thought if the roles were reversed, I would run far away from a reporter :) The reporter wants a story but the subject, too, wants something: he/she wants his story told, wants publicity, wants a moment of fame, etc. Malcolm offers a perfect example of this delicate dance--the Joe McGinniss/Jeffrey MacDonald trial of 1987. McGinniss spent years with MacDonald while the latter was on trial for murdering his wife and children. What resulted was the book FATAL VISION. When MacDonald was not pleased with his portrayal in the book (he thought he and McGinniss were friends and that McGinniss would write a sympathetic tale), he sued McGinniss for fraud.

Malcolm recounts this case and talks to many of the key witnesses. At issue: does a journalist have an obligation to be completely honest with a subject, even if that honesty would, more times than not, not even result in a story? Are subjects complicit in this arrangement, willing to overlook the uneven relationship for a shot at publicity?

This is a short book (163 pages in the old copy I had) but Malcolm writes with a bit of elevated language that had me consulting my dictionary (doesn't that violate a rule of journalism to not use a big word when a simple one will do?). There was somewhat of an arrogant tone that Malcolm employs, too, but I can't quite put my finger on what makes me say that. She's a big-name journalist writing about other big-name journalists; I guess that's a different and ego-filled world that I didn't find in journalism circles in southern Minnesota.

I recommend this book for journalism students and anyone interested in the field of journalism and the ethics that go along with it. Really, it's a great book for any writer (especially a journalist or narrative nonfiction writer) because she brings up great points about the writer's role.
Profile Image for Ben Loory.
Author 24 books672 followers
January 13, 2019
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 quotations (i.e. to transform real people into the focused characters of literature). That's bizarre and fascinating.

I was somewhat baffled by Malcolm's offhand refusal to examine the physical evidence in the case, saying she couldn't possibly learn anything from it. And also how mad she gets when others imply that maybe she's writing about this case because she just got done being sued for misrepresenting someone in her own writing? Very strange. She seems very certain about all her own certainties, and very uncertain about everyone else's. A lot to think about here, though, and I will probably read more of her work.
Profile Image for emily.
340 reviews200 followers
April 4, 2021
“Society mediates between the extremes of, on the one hand, intolerably strict morality and, on the other, dangerously anarchic permissiveness through an unspoken agreement whereby we are given leave to bend the rules of the strictest morality, provided we do so quietly and discreetly. Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way, by allowing for human fallibility and reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable human needs for order and pleasure.”

This was what I'd discovered when I flipped open the first few pages of Bret Easten Ellis' White. Instead of reading Ellis' book as I've initially planned to, my attention changed direction and strayed towards Malcolm's book. I listened to the audiobook which was quite decent. Going in, I wasn't sure what I was expecting except for what the title of the book suggests.

In Malcolm's book - she explores the 'ethics'/morals of journalism through Jeffrey MacDonald's murder case. MacDonald had taken too much diet pills which then aroused some kind of 'psychosis' in him - eventually leading him to kill his entire family. And then McGinniss (journalist/writer of Fatal Vision) wrote a book about him. MacDonald sued McGinnis afterwards. Malcolm argues in her book the rights/wrongs of that - and what is the responsibility/limits of a journalist.

Even though Malcolm had made some good points on other matters (sociology/psychology) in her book, I don't think I agree with her views on the issues of journalism. I wasn't particularly interested in the MacDonald murder case. Personally, I don't think there is a lot that one can learn from it. And when one can't do that, the crime is just used as a 'spectacle' to the public when it is being publicised in the ways that MacDonald's case was.

Malcolm's argument of journalists/McGinniss treading on immoral grounds whilst they were working on MacDonald's case was weak. I found it very unconvincing. Maybe if she were to used it on a different case, it would work better, but by using MacDonald's case as an example is not very persuasive in my opinion. Like esp. when she talks about how McGinniss was being a 'fake friend' to MacDonald in order to get information out of him to write his book. What about McGinniss' responsibility to himself - as a journalist; and his commitment to his work? McGinniss did not at any point lie to MacDonald anyway; he just let him believe what he wanted to believe - that they were 'friends'. Also, if you're convicted of a murder(s), why would you think a journalist wants to your friend? It's just absurd to me how this is made to be a valid argument/conflict when on the other hand there is an actual murder case/trial going on.

Also, in my opinion, MacDonald's desperate act of suing McGinniss is not that different from Ted Bundy becoming his own lawyer. Also it makes me wonder - isn't that also a bit of a privileged act? Like - he would need a certain amount of money to sue McGinniss, wouldn't he? Despite not liking this book enough/as much as I thought I would, it does bring about a lot of these doubts and questions about justice/criminal law and punishment.
Profile Image for stefan.
22 reviews
November 29, 2009
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 ethical obligations of subjects and reporters. Accepting that the reporter inevitably has the upper hand in taking a subject's information and shaping it into a storyline of the reporter's choosing, when, if ever, is it OK for a reporter to deceive a subject with regard to his personal beliefs on an issue?
Here the issue is pretty blunt -- whether or not the murderer is guilty. The journalist hides his belief that he is guilty, and lies about it to maintain his access to his source. Most reporters will never be in the opportunity to deceive or not deceive in such a dramatic fashion.
But in other cases, a reporter deals with this all the time, covering politics or anything else. He generally tries to hide -- and even forget -- his own convictions.
It's hard to imagine that Malcolm fully believes her starting assertion, or that there aren't ways around it -- by being smart about what she's doing and acting ethically. Writing straight stories also seems like a good approach.
But it's also good to recognize that reporters (and editors, I suppose) are shaping the news to some extent. I guess the hope is that we do it with the plain truth as our ultimate goal, and that we spend the time reporting to have a good chance of reaching that goal. Humbling stuff.
Profile Image for Richard Moss.
460 reviews9 followers
September 10, 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 Jeffrey Macdonald.

But this wasn't Macdonald on trial. Instead Macdonald was suing writer Joe McGinnis for what he'd written about him,

Macdonald had considered McGinnis a friend after he was invited behind the scenes with him and his defence team ahead of the murder trial.

But when he was convicted and read McGinnis' account of his time with Macdonald, he realised that his "friend" had always believed he was guilty of killing his wife and children.

At the centre of that trial were letters McGinnis sent to Macdonald in prison, which certainly give the impression that McGinnis was firmly on his side.

Malcolm questions the ethics. Was it fine for McGinnis to mislead Macdonald - who he believed was a dangerous killer - to ensure he stayed on board and he could complete his book? Or despite what Macdonald was convicted of, was what he did unacceptable?

The court came to its own conclusion, but it's the reader here who must weigh the evidence. Malcolm talks to a range of the protagonists - including Macdonald - to assess the arguments. Her contact with McGinnis though is sadly brief, as he decides not to co-operate.

As a journalist myself, it certainly raised questions with me. Malcolm comes to the conclusion that McGinnis' approach was not ethical, and I tend to agree. Despite Macdonald's conviction for a crime that is horrific (albeit one he continues to deny he committed), it seems to me McGinnis' lies were not justified.

Perhaps he didn't need to spell out to Macdonald that he thought he was a murderous Narcissist, but he could have behaved more neutrally, retaining a journalistic objectivity publicly, avoiding compromising himself.

Others though in the profession may take a different view, but Malcolm's exploration of the case is well worth exploring both for journalists and the general reader. And the recent explosion of true crime podcasts makes it as relevant now as it was in 1989.

One note though. if you are interested in the Macdonald case more generally, probably best not to start here. This is not a true crime book, but more of an exploration of ethics.
Profile Image for Muhammad Ahmad.
Author 3 books151 followers
December 27, 2020
Janet Malcolm writes well, has some astute observations on the relationship between journalist and subject, but the entire premise of the book collapses because she treats the actual murder as incidental to procedural decorum and the author/subject dynamic. For all its intelligence and nuanced commentaries on journalistic procedure, there are no ethical lessons here, which is ironic, since the subject of the book is the apparent ethical failings of its own subject.
Profile Image for James Hayman.
Author 8 books367 followers
July 30, 2018
Fascinating addendum to Joe McGuiness's Fatal Vision.
Profile Image for Bryan Metzger.
34 reviews1 follower
July 11, 2020
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 betrays the trust of their all too naive subject, regardless of scope or context. It's a fantastic read for anyone interested in the profession of journalism, even a newcomer such as myself.

As I read, I frequently thought back to previous interviews I've conducted-- both for my honors thesis and for particular stories-- with individuals that I personally found reprehensible. One observation I've had is that these subjects are often among my most friendly interviewees, indicating a certain level of trust and confidence in me that is probably unwarranted. I have yet to truly betray the trust of any of these subjects, at least in a clearly identifiable manner, but I know that the day will likely come. The question of what a journalist owes to their subjects-- and how a journalist's supposed devotion to the truth can seemingly justify varying levels of deception towards the subject-- is a question without a clear answer. Indeed, Malcolm never attempts to answer it herself.

A line that continues to resonate with me appears on the penultimate page of Malcolm's essay:

"If [the subject] has nothing to lose anymore from his encounters with writers, a writer has little to gain from him."

The idea that the game of journalism is so zero-sum is one that sits uncomfortably with me. Can't it be the case that someone is furthering their own interests by speaking with me, even as I further what I would consider to be the general interest by pursuing a story? Must there always be this tension? If there isn't, am I failing as a journalist? I don't feel that I have enough journalistic experience to answer these questions now, but I can be sure that they'll remain with me as long as I pursue this profession.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,640 followers
January 30, 2019
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, unavoidable necessity journalists have to make their stories compelling. Journalists do this by choosing sides, even if they believe themselves to be balanced (or "fair and balanced," as some would say). They tell the story in a way that bolsters their points of view and that appeals to their readers. Just committing the act of writing one word after another commits a writer to a certain set of conclusions. Malcolm examines this process with a greatness of heart that left me with a far greater awareness of the way I've been making these choices throughout my career.

Malcolm goes deeper than just examining the journalist's role, however. She also drills home the message that in many contexts the people with the best story to tell are the people who get what they want, and who get people to believe their story...whether it be lawyers telling the "true story" to a jury, or journalists adopting a certain level of jovial banter with interview subject they plan to excoriate in print, or suspected criminals trying to convince others that they are telling the truth. Why do we care so much that a suspect sound 'truthful?' What does that mean, anyway? Do we convict people because we don't like them? How is our idea of "truth" shaped by our human desire to hear a good story, or to fit people into certain categories that match our perception of "a good person" or "a wicked person" or "a trustworthy person?"

These are the kinds of questions Malcolm examines. The book is all the more rewarding for her willingness to put her own journalistic practices and beliefs under intense scrutiny as the book progresses.

A marvelous, eye-opening, self-reflective book.
Profile Image for Cathleen.
1,058 reviews38 followers
March 12, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Lauren Hawkins.
168 reviews137 followers
December 26, 2019
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 subjects—as a journalist myself, I find this interesting—but she didn't seem to reach any true meaning. Plus, I wish this had a narrative structure, while maintaining the integrity of it as a work of nonfiction, because I think that would've helped move the story along.

Although this was a thought-provoking read and well written, it was hard to get through even for how short it is. 

(3.5 stars)
Profile Image for Alison Hardtmann.
1,233 reviews2 followers
March 25, 2019
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, he felt betrayed and sued the author for fraud and breech of contract.

Malcolm was invited to speak with McGinness and to write about the case by McGinness's defense team, but after a single interview, McGinness refused to speak to her again. Malcolm constructed her book out of interviews with various people involved in both cases, as well as the court transcripts, but she notes the absence at the center of the story. Did McGinness cross a line in allowing MacDonald to view him as a sympathetic ear who believed in his innocence? Are journalists free to lie and deceive in order to get their story?

While Malcolm does not provide any solid answers, the presentation of the questions and of the strange story of the relationship between the journalist and the murderer does make for compelling reading and much to think about.
Profile Image for Suju.
288 reviews1 follower
April 18, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 9 books123 followers
August 5, 2021
Janet Malcolm’s recent death reminded me that I had not read any of her full-length work. I chose her most famous work. What I most enjoyed in my reading of this book was watching Malcolm’s mind at work, weighing, critiquing, philosophizing. The content interested me less than the process.
Profile Image for Colleen O'Neill Conlan.
111 reviews9 followers
January 20, 2013
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 and $300,000 in anticipated royalties. The two men became very close, or seemed to, with long multipage letters going back and forth between them after MacDonald's incarceration. Malcolm reprints excerpts of McGinniss's letters, and they seem like they were written by a supportive friend stunned with the news of his buddy's unfair conviction. Since McGinniss was still working on his book, he maintained this facade and their correspondence. Once Fatal Vision came out and MacDonald saw how he was portrayed, he felt duped and betrayed, and brought a civil suit against McGinniss, claiming McGinniss faked his support and belief in MacDonald's innocence in order to remain in his inner circle. The result was hung jury, with five of six jurors siding with MacDonald.

This civil suit forms the core of Malcolm's book. She takes a close look at the case and is able to interview those involved, including MacDonald, McGinnis, the lawyers, jurors, and expert witnesses. But more so, she explores the ethics of any journalist-subject relationship, including her own role as journalist in this story. Toward the end of her story she recalls reviewing her own letters to MacDonald, and compares them to McGinniss's: "I find my letters as unpleasant as McGinniss's. It is not so much what they say that bothers me as their self-satisfied tone and their fundamental falseness—the falseness that is built into the writer-subject relationship...[which] seems to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose."

This isn't a long book, but it's intricate, so it took time to digest. You've got two men, both macho, alpha guys. One is Jeff and one is Joe, one is MacDonald and one is McGinniss. The closeness in names had me a little confused at first. One's a bad guy (convicted killer) who come out seeming almost like the good guy, or at least, the wronged guy. One's a good guy (truth-seeking journalist) who comes out looking like a bad guy, or at least a false con-man type. Tricky stuff, and makes for good reading.

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