The Journalist and the Murderer

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The Journalist and the Murderer

Janet Malcolm 1989

Author Biography
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Over the decades, Janet Malcolm has built a reputation for herself as a journalist who does not shy away from raising unpleasant topics. Whether tackling psychology, literature, or the criminal justice system, Malcolm's frankness and controversial opinions have often placed her outside the journalistic community. In an article in Salon, Craig Seligman, an admirer of her work, readily acknowledged that "Malcolm is hard on her subjects."

Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer first appeared as an article in the New Yorker in 1989 and the following year, along with an appended afterword, it was published as a book. This extended essay dealt with journalistic ethics by focusing on the libel suit that a convicted murderer brought against writer Joe McGinniss for breach of faith. It sent shockwaves among members of the press. While Seligman asserted that The Journalist and the Murderer is "the masterpiece that permanently tied the noose around her neck." He maintained that she had a higher calling: "the service of the truth." While many critics accused Malcolm of attacking journalistic ethics, Malcolm's work is rather an exploration of the responsibility the journalist has to both the subject and the reader. Though the ultimate commitment the journalist has is to the "reader's interests," Malcolm concludes that the journalist should not ignore the "moral impasse" or employ "crude and gratuitous two-facedness," both of which, she tries to prove, McGinniss did.

Author Biography

Malcolm was born in the 1930s to a Jewish family in pre-World War II Prague, Czechoslovakia. Her father was a psychiatrist. Because of rising anti-Semitism, the family left Europe in 1939 and settled in New York. Malcolm attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and went on to the University of Michigan. Malcolm wrote reviews for the student paper and worked as an editor for the university's humor magazine.

In the 1960s, Malcolm became a staff writer for the New Yorker, focusing primarily on interior decoration and design. By the 1970s she had branched out into writing about photography for the magazine. She published her first book, Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography, in 1980. Ten of the eleven essays had originally appeared in the New Yorker, and many of her later books would also have their first publication in the magazine.

With her next book, Malcolm delved into the psychoanalytical world. Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession presented a history of the psychoanalytical profession and community. Her next book was the first of many that would cause great controversy. In 1983, Malcolm published a pair of articles in the New Yorker,"In the Freud Archives," which was published by Knopf the following year. It concerned the fight for control of Sigmund Freud's archives. Malcolm met one of the central figures, psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, won his trust, and then proceeded to write what Craig Seligman called in Salon,"a masterwork of character assassination." Masson quickly sued Malcolm for libel, basing his case on five quotations that he claimed she had made up. The suit was not wholly resolved until 1994, when a jury found that although Malcolm had falsified two quotes, she had not done so with "reckless disregard."

While undergoing this trial, Malcolm took on the subject of journalist freedom. "Reflections: The Journalist and the Murderer" appeared in two installments in the New Yorker in 1989, and it was published as the book The Journalist and the Murderer the following year. In it, Malcolm explored the relationship between the journalist and the subject, but her assertions as to the inherent dishonesty that all reporters practice disturbed many readers.

Malcolm's 1994 The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (which also first appeared as a New Yorker article) generated controversy as she took an unorthodox view of Hughes. In The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), Malcolm chronicles the trial of Virginia attorney McGough, who served two and a half years in federal prison after her 1990 felony conviction for defending a con artist and having financial involvement in his business dealings. Malcolm steadfastly believed in McGough's innocence, and her book examines the legal system.


In The Journalist and the Murderer (originally published almost in its entirety in the New Yorker), Malcolm explores the relationship between the journalist and the subject. Declaring that this relationship is always rife with seduction and betrayal, Malcolm focuses her argument around the example of MacDonald and McGinniss. MacDonald was the former Green Beret doctor convicted of murdering his wife and two young children. McGinniss was the writer who gained exclusive access to MacDonald and his lawyers, and, while professing to be a friend and supporter of MacDonald, wrote and published Fatal Vision, a nonfiction book that portrayed the doctor as a pathological liar and cold-blooded killer. MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract.

McGinniss was already an award-winning nonfiction writer when he first met MacDonald in 1979. MacDonald's wife and children had been murdered in 1970, he alleged, by a group of hippies who broke into the family's apartment. Although an army tribunal cleared MacDonald, several years later more evidence was disclosed, and he was indicted for murder. About to face trial, MacDonald asked McGinniss if he would like to write a book about the case from the point of view of the defense team. McGinniss was drawn to the insider position. He accompanied the MacDonald team to North Carolina for the trial, lived in their rented fraternity house and eventually was made a member in order to guard lawyer-client privilege. In return for this exclusive access, MacDonald would receive a share of the royalties. He also signed a contract promising not to sue McGinniss for libel if he did not like McGinniss's finished product.

After a seven-week trial, MacDonald was convicted and sent to prison. McGinniss spent the next four years working on his book. Despite continuous contact with MacDonald, McGinniss never revealed that he believed MacDonald was guilty and that the book would clearly demonstrate this sentiment.

After Fatal Vision was published in 1983, MacDonald sued his former confidante. At the trial, cross-examination forced McGinniss to reveal his disingenuous behavior toward MacDonald. Trial excerpts included in Malcolm's book make him appear, simply, an opportunist. Rebuttal witnesses, fellow writers who attempted to justify being dishonest with subjects in order to get information, only hindered his case. Three months after the trial ended in a hung jury—a 6-1 split—an agreement was made under which McGinniss admitted to no wrongdoing but paid MacDonald $325,000.

Malcolm became interested in the case after receiving a letter from McGinniss's lawyer, Daniel Kornstein, in which he spoke of the threat the lawsuit posed to journalistic freedom. Malcolm responded by getting in touch with and subsequently interviewing McGinniss. Though McGinniss canceled all future interviews, Malcolm continued to investigate the story. She read the transcript of the MacDonald-McGinniss trial and interviewed other key participants. Malcolm met with lawyers, witnesses, private investigators, and jurists involved in the case. She used this research to draw numerous conclusions about the inherent uneasiness of the journalist-subject relationship.

One piece of information Malcolm did not include in the main body of the book was that she herself had been sued for libel by one of her own subjects; that libel suit had ended in its dismissal. Many of Malcolm's fellow journalists responded critically to her work, charging that she used McGinniss's ordeal to expatiate her own guilt. In an afterword, Malcolm denied these charges. She maintained that the problem of the journalist-subject relationship had long disturbed her, but she also acknowledged that the writer always finds some part of herself in her characters.

Key Figures

Gary Bostwick

Bostwick was the lawyer who represented MacDonald in his libel suit against McGinniss.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

Buckley, a writer, was a witness for the defense at McGinniss's libel trial. He testified that it was acceptable for a writer to falsely agree to something a subject says in order to acquire more information.

Lucille Dillon

Dillion was the one jurist serving on the McGinniss-MacDonald trial who did not find McGinniss guilty. Her refusal to deliberate forced the judge to declare a mistrial.

Dr. Jeffrey Eliot

Dr. Eliot was a writer and a professor who taught at North Carolina Central University. He was working on a book about MacDonald and served as a witness at the libel trial. He believed that MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and that a new one could result in his acquittal.

Bob Keeler

Keeler was a reporter from Newsday who had covered the MacDonald trial. He hoped to publish his own book about the crime but was unable to get a contract. He interviewed McGinniss, questioning him closely about his relationship to MacDonald.

Daniel Kornstein

Kornstein was the lawyer who defended McGinniss in his libel trial. He drew Malcolm's interest in the case in 1987 when he sent a letter to thirty journalists around the country, inviting them to talk to McGinniss and begin an investigation of this perceived threat to the freedom of journalistic expression.

Jeffrey MacDonald

MacDonald was a physician for a U.S. Army Green Beret unit in 1970 when his pregnant wife and two young daughters were stabbed to death in the family's home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. MacDonald claimed four hippies had broken into the house and committed the crime. MacDonald moved to California and started a new life. Several years later, MacDonald was charged with the crime. The trial took place in 1979, and MacDonald was found guilty.

McGinniss's Fatal Vision supported this position. MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of faith in 1987. The two parties' lawyers agreed to settle; McGinniss admitted to no wrongdoing but paid MacDonald $325,000. In the years since both of these trials, MacDonald has maintained his innocence.

Janet Malcolm

Malcolm is one of the key characters in her book. She narrates the book from the first-person point of view (though she maintains in the afterword that the "I" is merely a dispassionate narrator and not really Malcolm at all). As a journalist, Malcolm has undertaken the investigation of the relationship that exists between the journalist and his or her subject. As she tells the reader, this is an issue that has long troubled her. She has genuine experience in the difficulties this relationship poses, for she previously was the defendant in a lawsuit in which one of her subjects accused her of misquoting him. Her book is an extended musing on the ethics and responsibilities of the journalist, both to the subject and to the reader. She castigates any journalists who do not acknowledge the inherent problem that exists but readily admits that there is no easy solution to balancing the desires of all the parties involved. As she points out, a writer always transfers part of herself or himself onto the subject. "The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction," she writes, "derive from the writer's most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is." With her host of inflammatory statements, Malcolm opened herself up for the harsh criticism of her colleagues.

Michael Malley

Malley was a lawyer who had been MacDonald's college roommate. He had taken part in the army hearings that dismissed the charges against him in 1970, and he also took a leave from his law firm to work for his friend's defense in the murder trial. He was not happy that McGinniss was given such easy access to MacDonald's defense team. He played a key role in MacDonald's libel suit, testifying about the relationship that developed between MacDonald and McGinniss.

Joe McGinniss

McGinnis was a well-known nonfiction writer. At the time Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer, he had published six books. He first met MacDonald in 1979, right before his murder trial commenced. He contracted with MacDonald to write about MacDonald's experience and received complete and exclusive access to MacDonald and his lawyers. McGinniss seemed to become close friends with MacDonald, and after MacDonald was found guilty, McGinniss corresponded with him for almost four years. Though he actually believed that MacDonald was guilty, he kept this truth hidden while he was working on his book.

The book McGinniss published about the case, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983. Upon reading it, MacDonald discovered for the first time that McGinniss believed him to be guilty of the crime. Furthermore, the book also helped convince numerous readers of MacDonald's guilt.

Bernard Segal

Segal defended MacDonald before the Army tribunal—which found him uninvolved in the murders—and remained his lawyer until 1982. Getting a writer involved in MacDonald's story was originally Segal's idea.

Dr. Michael Stone

Dr. Stone was a witness for the defense at McGinniss' libel trial. He had diagnosed MacDonald as having a pathological illness after reading Fatal Vision.

Joseph Wambaugh

Wambaugh, a true crime writer, was a witness for the defense at McGinniss's libel trial. He maintained that there was a crucial difference between a lie and an untruth. He believed that it was acceptable for a journalist to deceive a subject in order to get at the actual truth, thus rendering it an "untruth."


Ethics and Truth

The exploration of journalistic ethics is at the core of The Journalist and the Murderer. At its outset, Malcolm asserts that every reporter is "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." To prove her thesis, Malcolm relates the narrative of the MacDonald-McGinniss lawsuit, which has at its heart MacDonald's contention that McGinniss had not maintained the "essential integrity" of his life story. By contrast, in an interview he gave after the publication of Fatal Vision, McGinniss said that his "only obligation … was to the truth." By that, he means the truth as he (and the MacDonald trial jury) saw it: MacDonald's guilt—not the truth that he presented to MacDonald: a belief in his innocence.

McGinniss claimed no wrongdoing. At his trial his lawyers brought in other journalists and nonfiction authors to defend his actions. William F. Buckley, Jr., admitted that he would "tell [a subject] something you don't really believe in order to get more information from him." Joseph Wambaugh, author of the true crime book The Onion Field, attempted to draw a distinction between a lie and an untruth: "A lie is something that's told with ill will or in bad faith," but an untruth is "part of a device wherein one can get at the actual truth." Such defense, however, failed to convince many spectators, including the jury.


MacDonald's suit of McGinniss stemmed from what MacDonald viewed as a colossal betrayal of trust. McGinniss asserted a false belief in MacDonald's innocence in order to gain access to his story. MacDonald's trust in McGinniss is readily apparent. After MacDonald was convicted and imprisoned, the correspondence between the two men reveals a closer connection than merely author-subject. On numerous occasions, McGinniss wrote of the unfairness of MacDonald's conviction and assured MacDonald of his friendship. MacDonald gave McGinniss permission to use his empty apartment and even to remove documents from them—documents that McGinniss would later use to vilify MacDonald. Malcolm also points out that even after the experience with McGinniss, MacDonald continued to trust journalists, for instance, granting interviews and giving materials to them. Malcolm finds such behavior—which she believes manifests a "childish trust" in journalists—common among subjects.

Malcolm also explores the guilt that reporters feel about deluding their subjects from a personal point of view. Clearly finding McGinniss's actions toward MacDonald reprehensible, Malcolm still wanted to speak with McGinniss. However, McGinniss opted to end a series of projected interviews. While this crippled her endeavor to an extent, she also wrote that it freed her from the guilt she would have felt at talking to a man she thought had acted unethically, because "you can't betray someone you barely know."

Psychoanalysis and Psychology

Throughout her work, Malcolm uses language and knowledge gleaned from her previous work on psychoanalysis and psychology. On numerous occasions, she compares the journalist's subject to a therapy patient. For instance, in her opening pages, she likens the journalist's subject's discovery of his or her manipulation to a famous psychological experiment conducted in the 1960s. As another example, in discussing the trust that many subjects willingly place in journalists, Malcolm writes, "The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter." Malcolm draws further parallels between the journalist-subject relationship and the analyst-patient. The subject, like the patient, will tell his or her story to anyone who will listen and always plays the dominant role. Malcolm's journey to uncover these truths also resembles the therapeutic process. As the journalist, she has learned how the subject acts, as the analyst learns how the patient will act. However, Malcolm is not the only person who relies on the language of psychoanalysis. The wife of MacDonald's lawyer, herself a therapist, likens McGinniss's conflict that arose from pretending to be MacDonald's friend to therapy.

Psychology is also important to McGinniss's work Fatal Vision. In this book he labeled MacDonald a psychopath and a pathological narcissist and quoted several texts that described such deviants. Though the psychiatrist Michael Stone, who was a witness for the McGinniss defense, concurred with this diagnosis, he admitted that he had never met MacDonald; he had actually drawn this conclusion years before, upon reading McGinniss's book. Malcolm concludes that the labeling of MacDonald as a psychopath was so important to McGinniss because it allowed him to feel that he was betraying an "it," not a real person.


Point of View

Malcolm uses the first-person point of view throughout the book, which renders her a constant presence in the book. However, she complicates her position at the end of the book. In the afterword, Malcolm states that the journalist's—and her own—"I" character is "almost pure invention." She considers the "I" to function as a dispassionate narrator, one that can be as impartial as the third-person voice, which is much more widely used in nonfiction texts. Despite her claims, it is difficult at times to distinguish the narrative "I" from the Malcolm "I"; at one point she even makes certain to distinguish the two by referring to "(the actual) I." The "I" puts forth strong assertions, such as the one that opens her work, but is this "I" simply expressing a narrative opinion or Malcolm's opinion? When Malcolm admits to long being troubled by the "unhealthiness of the journalist-subject relationship," this only lends further credence to the blending of the two "I's."

Topics for Further Study

  • Imagine that a dialogue took place between MacDonald and McGinniss after the publication of Fatal Vision. Write what you think that conversation might have been like.
  • Read Fatal Vision. Keeping in mind the contradictory opinions you have read in The Journalist and the Murderer, write an essay about the role that McGinniss played in influencing the reader's opinion.
  • If you had the opportunity to interview Malcolm about her own feelings about McGinniss and MacDonald, what would you want to know? Write a series of questions that you would pose to Malcolm, and then attempt to answer as you think Malcolm would.
  • What opinion do you draw of Malcolm's own ethics though your study of The Journalist and the Murderer ? Write an essay exploring this topic.
  • Analyze Malcolm's use of language in The Journalist and the Murderer. Is it matter-of-fact? Exaggerated? Convincing?
  • Do you agree with Malcolm's contentions about the relationship between the journalist and the subject? Write a review of The Journalist and the Murderer. You may want to read reviews that appeared when the work was first published.
  • Seligman wrote in Salon of Malcolm, "What journalist of her caliber is so widely disliked or as often accused of bad faith? … In the animus toward her there is something almost personal." What opinion do you draw from The Journalist and the Murderer of Malcolm as a person (not as a journalist)?

The prominence of Malcolm's voice in developing her argument poses another potential problem, that of personal ethics. Many critics attacked Malcolm upon the article's original New Yorker publication because she never mentioned that, like McGinniss, she had been sued for libel by a subject. Some of these attacks suggested that she was simply projecting her own guilty conscience onto the text of her work. Malcolm felt compelled to respond in an article, which was included as the book's afterword, that this was not the case. However, Malcolm does not deny that even in nonfiction writing, a writer puts a great deal of himself or herself into the "characters." Malcolm's specific language here is revealing: in referring to real people as characters, she is expressing her belief that these people have a fictive function.


The Journalist and the Murderer is an extended essay. Malcolm builds her essay based on personal experience, knowledge, research, and philosophies, but she also draws on actual events, interviews, and other matters of the public record. Though she casts her ideas authoritatively, Malcolm is essentially writing a persuasive essay. She opens her work with a premise—that any decent journalist knows that he or she is acting immorally—and then provides evidence to prove this thesis to the reader. She relies on facts, interviews, and detailed research, as well as on what she perceives to be a solid understanding of human nature. She also attempts to assert her credibility by showing the mistakes she makes but quickly moves to correct. For example, she writes of her surprise at learning that her subtle and sensitive questioning elicited the identical responses from MacDonald as another reporter's more businesslike technique; however, she turns a blatantly elitist and self-important error into a positive by using it to reach the conclusion that subjects merely want someone who will listen to their story, their truth.

Quotations and Interviews

Malcolm employs several methods of supplying testimony to the reader. She quotes from the McGinniss trial transcript, correspondence, and nonfiction material, as well as from Fatal Vision. In these cases, it appears that she quotes from her sources word-for-word. During the course of working on this book, Malcolm also conducted numerous interviews with many people, including MacDonald, McGinniss, trial witnesses, other journalists, jurists, and friends of MacDonald. Malcolm reports on her interviews and quotes extensively from the dialogue that took place. In her afterword, she points out that readers assume that when they read a quotation in a newspaper, they are reading what the speaker actually said, not what the speaker probably said. However, she also acknowledges that "when a journalist undertakes to quote a subject he has interviewed on tape, he owes it to the subject, no less than to the reader, to translate his speech into prose." While Malcolm maintains that the journalist is merely performing the sort of "rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs," her revelation calls into some question the exact veracity of the interviews that Malcolm chronicles.

Historical Context

The Reagan Revolution

The 1980s is known as the Reagan era. Conservative former California governor Ronald Reagan was elected to the first of two terms in 1980. His vice president, George Bush, succeeded Reagan in 1988. Reagan took a hard-line against communism and a tough stance in foreign affairs in general. Scandals such as the Iran-Contra affair rocked the nation in the 1980s. In the Iran-Contra affair, members of Reagan's administration illegally sold missiles to Iran and then used the profits to pay for weapons and supplies for Nicaraguan Contras, who were fighting a civil war against the country's communist-supported government. Many Americans approved of Reagan because the economy improved during the decade. The 1980s had opened with the United States still mired in recession and stagflation. Reagan supported an economic theory called supply-side economics, in which taxes are cut for wealthy individuals in the hope that these people will invest these savings in businesses, thereby creating jobs and increasing consumer spending. Although the U.S. economy turned around, many critics charged that not all Americans benefited. In fact, during the Reagan years, a growing divide developed between the upper classes and the lower classes.


Crime rates in the United States had dipped in the early 1980s but were on the rise again by the middle of the decade. During the 1980s, public focus turned on the crimes of mass murderers and serial killers. Increased media attention contributed to this trend, as did a rise in "true crime" books. The FBI began to use psychological profiling to identify and arrest unknown killers. Several television programs, including COPS, Unsolved Mysteries, and America's Most Wanted (hosted by the father of a murdered child), also focused on the apprehension of criminals. These programs all highlighted real-life crimes and entreated the public to help capture the criminals.

White-collar crime also abounded. Two high-profile, white-collar crimes drew the attention of the nation. Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, both financiers, were convicted of illegal business activities. Milken was convicted for having sold junk bonds, and Boesky for having practiced insider trading.

The World of Words

Noted author Phillip Roth estimated that in the 1980s, there were only 120,000 readers of serious literature in the United States. Publishers were less likely to bring out quality literary books. Focusing on turning a larger profit instead of enhancing their reputation, many publishers awarded million-dollar advances to writers of would-be bestsellers, which were often, creatively, merely mediocre. Bestsellers spanned a range of topics, from Stephen Hawking's study of the universe, A Brief History of Time, to Oliver Sacks' examination of brain-injured patients, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, to business and cartoon books. Horror-fiction writer Stephen King was probably the most widely read novelist of the 1980s. By the middle of the decade, fifty million copies of his books were in print. Throughout the decade, the gap between bestsellers and great books continued to widen. Some important literary writers included Raymond Carver, Larry McMurtry, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

The Media

While media flourished in the 1980s, the field of journalism worsened overall, with the careful journalistic probing that had dominated past endeavors all but disappearing. Instead, the media delivered what it believed the public wanted: lurid stories and events. The 1980s also saw a large increase in tabloid journalism and the number of talk shows.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1980s: In several cases heard in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that in order to find a defendant guilty of libel, reckless disregard and deliberate falsity must have taken place; a reporter must not only publish false information but do so recklessly, maliciously, and without trying to determine the information's accuracy.

    Today: At least one proposal has been made for a new set of libel laws that would make it easier for plaintiffs to prove their cases. The proposal also would eliminate large financial awards.

  • 1980s: At the beginning of the 1980s, there are 612,000 lawyers and 204,000 editors and reporters. By the end of the 1980s, there are 741,000 lawyers and 274,000 editors and reporters.

    Today: In 1998, there are 912,000 lawyers and 253,000 editors and reporters.

  • 1970s: At the end of the decade, about 20,000 murders are committed in a year in the United States.

    1980s: In 1989, about 21,500 murders are committed in the United States.

    Today: In 1998, about 18,200 murders are committed in the United States

  • 1980s: At the beginning of the 1980s, 168,800 cases commence in U.S. district courts, of which only 6.5 percent reach trial. At the end of the 1980s, in 1990, 217,900 civil cases have commenced, of which 4.3 percent reach trial.

    Today: In 1997, 265,200 civil cases commence in U.S. district courts. Of these, only 3 percent reach trial

  • 1980s: In 1980, 1,716 magazines are published every week. There are a total of 10,236 magazines, including weeklies, being published.

    1990s: In 1998, there are 364 magazines that are published weekly, but there are a total of 12,036 magazines, including weeklies, being published.

Magazine publishing, however, experienced a boom. More new titles emerged that were aimed at increasingly specialized audiences. Magazines catered to almost all audiences from computer users, to parents, to sports fans and exercise fanatics. Many of these new publications closed down after only a few years in business, however.

Critical Overview

"Reflections: The Journalist and the Murderer" first appeared as a two-part article in the pages of the New Yorker in 1989. The book, with its added afterword (initially published in the New York Review of Books), was published the following year. Malcolm's article stunned the journalistic community in its portrayal of the journalist as "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Craig Seligman, who later wrote in his article "Brilliant Careers" in Salon about the experience of reading the article for the first time, held a distinctly minority opinion:

Reading Malcolm's cool, considered, perfect prose, I knew I was in the presence of genius, and the weeklong wait for the second installment was a torment that only picking up the phone and calling friends who were going through the same thing could relieve.

But Seligman is aware that he is in the minority: "This was not, however, the reaction of Malcolm's fellow journalists—to put it mildly."

Even before publication in book form, the article drew immediate criticism from reviewers. In Seligman's words, they were split "between puzzled indignation and defensive fury." Faultfinders pointed out that, despite an incident at the heart of the issue—the MacDonald-McGinniss lawsuit—Malcolm never mentioned the libel suit lodged against her by Jeffrey Masson. Malcolm responded to such criticism in the book's afterword. In this short essay, Malcolm denied that the work was "a thinly veiled account of my own experiences," but she also alluded to the transference of feelings between the writer and the subject. "The characters of nonfiction … derive from the writer's most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is."

Malcolm's declarations, however, did little to appease her critics. As Catharine R. Stimpson pointed out in the Nation, this experience must have given her "some expertise and authority," at a bare minimum, enough to realize that ignoring her own libel suit left her open to greater scrutiny. Even Malcolm's supporter, Seligman, fully believed that The Journalist and the Murderer was a "brilliant solution to [Malcolm's] obvious impulse toward autobiography: Talking about McGinniss and MacDonald was an oblique and tactful way of talking about Malcolm and Masson." Upon reading the afterword in the published book, Seligman dubbed it "self-deceiving."

Fred Bruning, writing in Maclean's, further objected to the "shared guilt" that Malcolm inflicts on all journalists. There is a difference, he maintained, between practicing reporters and "celebrity writers," like McGinniss and Malcolm. Bruning contended that Malcolm's argument was unrealistic; reporters simply did not have the time to indulge in such elaborate "high-stakes games" as those described in The Journalist and the Murderer. Stimpson lodged another complaint against Malcolm: "Malcolm masculinizes the act of writing.… her tone-deafness about gender blunts her ability to hear and tell a story."

J. Anthony Lukas, a writer for Washington Monthly was one of Malcolm's most forceful critics. He called The Journalist and the Murderer"a work of inspired quackery." In his article Lukas examined Malcolm's background as a reporter and concluded that "for her, the relationship between reporter and subject is another version of therapist and patient." Lukas also mocked Malcolm's defense in the afterword as weak and unconvincing. Like Bruning, he rebelled against Malcolm's equation of all reporters as masters of "seduction and betrayal." (Lukas, it must be pointed out, was a long-time friend of the Malcolm-maligned McGinniss.)

Aside from Seligman, who lauded the book as "a masterpiece," other journalists did have praise for Malcolm's work. Stimpson called it a "spare, lucid, clever book." Fred Friendly of the New York Times Book Review acknowledged that although Malcolm's work would offend anyone who believed that criticism of journalistic freedom is an attack on the First Amendment, her inquiry "no matter if exaggerated, should force all of us in the news business to re-examine our methods and manners." Even Lukas conceded that the book and Malcolm both have their strengths. Malcolm's "outsider perspective enables [her] to plumb ironies that might be missed by workaday reporters." Her work, he wrote, "bristles with acute intelligence" and includes "some fine glancing insights."


Rena Korb

Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the author's exploration of subject and reader manipulation.

Malcolm opens her work The Journalist and the Murderer with an extremely provocative premise: "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."

Malcolm uses the difficult relationship between convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and the nonfiction writer Joe McGinniss to explore this weighty hypothesis. MacDonald sued McGinniss for a breach of good faith after the publication of Fatal Vision, which depicted the former Green Beret doctor as a psychopathic killer. Five of six jurists agreed with MacDonald that McGinniss had acted in a deceptive manner, and, clearly, so does Malcolm.

In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm explores the manipulative tactics used by reporters and writers to draw out their subjects and influence their readers. At the same time, however, Malcolm—a journalist—cannot help but implicate herself to a very real degree. At times she does so obliquely, for instance, using descriptions to bolster her opinions about certain personages. She also implicates herself with several forthright statements in which she admits the power a journalist holds over the subject. In speaking of one person who appeared in the book, she writes, "I always knew I had the option of writing something about him that would cause him distress. … He was completely at my mercy. I held all the cards."

Concerning the MacDonald-McGinniss case, the facts are hardly in dispute. Malcolm presents a great deal of evidence to prove that McGinniss deliberately and deceitfully pretended to be a friend and supporter of MacDonald. In September 1979, less than one month after MacDonald's conviction, McGinniss wrote to him in jail, "Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial." In another letter written that same month, McGinniss shows greater emotion:

Jeff, one of the worst things about all this is how suddenly and totally all your friends—myself included—have been deprived of the pleasure of your company.… What the f—were those people thinking of? How could 12 people [the jury] … agree to believe such a horrendous proposition?

However, in a later interview with Newsday reporter Bob Keeler, McGinniss asserted that he concurred wholeheartedly with MacDonald's conviction. "I knew he had done it—no question." He subsequently dated his belief in MacDonald's guilt as occurring during the trial.

McGinniss's letters also show that throughout the period of writing Fatal Vision, the author was not opposed to making his beliefs about MacDonald's guilt known to others, only to the convicted man himself. McGinniss wrote to his book editor as early as 1981 about his concerns that MacDonald seemed "too loathsome too soon." He wanted to reveal "the worst revelations" at the end, "when we draw closer and closer to him, seeing the layers of the mask melt away and gazing … at the essence of the horror which lurks beneath." As further proof of his deliberate deceitfulness, the following year, McGinniss wrote to MacDonald that he hoped to be able to call him at home soon, instead of at prison.

In the one meeting between McGinniss and Malcolm, he attempted to justify his actions by pointing out that a journalist has no responsibility to tell a subject that he is creating a negative portrait. In the discussion of MacDonald's treatment of him, McGinniss reaches the crux of the matter:

MacDonald was clearly trying to manipulate me, and I was aware of it from the beginning. But did I have an obligation to say, 'Wait a minute. I think you are trying to manipulate me, and I have to call your attention to the fact that I'm aware of this, just so you'll understand you are not succeeding?'

McGinniss repeated several times that he felt his only responsibility was "to the book and this truth"—that is, the truth as he saw it.

MacDonald's lawyer, Gary Bostwick, strongly disagreed. At the trial he characterized the issue at hand as "a case about a false friend." MacDonald told Malcolm that "McGinniss has no excuse for his false portrayal. He wasn't watching a distant subject through a haze—he was deeply involved, as 'best friend,' for four years—and still managed to miss the entire core of my being." McGinniss might argue that he had a different view of MacDonald's core—seeing there the soul of a psychopathic murderer—but it remains infinitely troubling that McGinniss never intimated it.

At McGinniss's trial, two well-known writers attempted to defend his actions as "standard operating procedure." William F. Buckley, Jr., presented the following analogy in his attempt to justify McGinnis' methods:

If, for instance you were writing a book on somebody who was a renowned philanderer and he said, "I mean, you do think my wife is impossible, don't you?," you might say, "Yeah, I think she's very hard to get along with," simply for the purpose of lubricating the discussion in order to learn more information.

Joseph Wambaugh displayed even greater hypocrisy. In Malcolm's words, he "testified that misleading subjects was a kind of sacred duty among writers." However, Malcolm knows that reporters will act as Wambaugh described. She judges, "When Buckley and Wambaugh said bluntly that it's all right to deceive subjects, they breached the contract whereby you never come right out and admit you have stretched the rules for your own benefit."

In acknowledging the deceit inherent in journalism, however, Malcolm opens herself up for scrutiny. If allowing one's own ideas about a subject to infiltrate one's work is a journalistic sin, Malcolm also seems to be guilty. In the afterword, she raises doubts about her portrayal of the key figures who appear in her book when she asserts that the "I" who speaks throughout The Journalist and the Murderer is not Malcolm but merely the voice of journalistic opinion:

a journalistic "I" … an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, … which exists only for the occasion it has been summoned for and has no history or life of its own.

However, Malcolm's assertion—which she recognizes may be difficult for some readers to accept—may trouble a reader, who can extrapolate from it a crucial question: If we can't trust that Malcolm is Malcolm, how can we trust that the other characters are who she creates them to be?

What Do I Read Next?

  • Malcolm's The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) raises issues of biographical integrity and also posits a controversial position on the famous literary couple.
  • Henry James's satiric novel The Bostonians (1886) includes a character who is a reporter who holds little regard for his interviewees.
  • Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's All the President's Men, a book about the unearthing of the Watergate scandal, also raises the journalistic issue of telling lies in order to learn the truth.
  • Sissela Bok's essay "Lying" (1978) examines the use of lies by journalists and police investigators in order to obtain greater knowledge. In this meditation, Bok takes on the role of philosophical investigator.
  • Fatal Vision is a true-crime account written by Joe McGinniss, a firm believer in MacDonald's guilt.
  • Jeffrey Allen Potter and Fred Bost argue for MacDonald's innocence in Fatal Justice, reporting the existence of suppressed evidence that would confirm this belief.

In certain instances, Malcolm provides factual evidence to back up her allegations. When she quotes McGinniss's letters and transcripts from his trial, it seems reasonable that these words are the truth—though, of course, a reader does not have access to the entire set of McGinniss's letters or to the complete transcript. More potentially troublesome is that she relates, and has control of, many conversations with key players. This is true for two reasons. First, before writing The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm had been sued by one of her subjects for misquoting him. The case was eventually decided in her favor, but it is interesting to note that Malcolm no longer had the tape recordings of the conversations, including the quotes in question. Second, Malcolm readily asserts in The Journalist and the Murderer that "none of the quotations in this book … are, of course, identical to their speech counterparts." In essence, Malcolm's impression is really what matters.

Malcolm undercuts her own authority by doing what she accuses McGinniss of doing: manipulating the audience. She clearly shows her own dislike for the way McGinniss treated MacDonald. One telling example is her discussion of McGinniss's refusal to allow MacDonald to read an advance copy of the book. Though MacDonald was disappointed, he agreed to appear on 60 Minutes prior to reading the book and there learned of its startling contents:

[He] enthusiastically lent himself to the pre-publication publicity campaign for the book. His assignment was an appearance on the television show 60 Minutes, and it was during the taping of the show in prison that the fact of McGinniss's duplicity was brought home to him.… Mike Wallace—who had received an advance copy of Fatal Visionwithout difficulty or lecture [emphasis mine]—read out loud to MacDonald passages in which he was portrayed as a psychopathic killer.

Malcolm also attempts to sway the reader's opinion of MacDonald through specific narration. Because MacDonald was "not suitable for a work of nonfiction, not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers," she relies on description and direct statements to a much greater extent than she does with any other figures. She contends that she only saw one sign of "anything disturbing and uncanny about MacDonald, of anything that isn't blandly 'normal."' She also notes that she is "struck by the physical grace of the man." In one visit, she rhapsodizes on his eating of doughnuts: "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." With this description, Malcolm attempts to counter the image that McGinniss presented of MacDonald—that of a brutal killer.

In the afterword that Malcolm wrote after being criticized for the piece, she acknowledges more clearly than she had previously the difficult nature of the reporter-subject relationship:

There is an infinite variety of ways in which journalists struggle with the moral impasse that is the subject of this book. The wisest know that the best they can do … is still not good enough.

Despite her lengthy investigation, Malcolm finds there is no easy remedy to the problem.

"In acknowledging the deceit inherent in journalism, Malcolm opens herself up for scrutiny. If allowing one's own ideas about a subject to infiltrate one's work is a journalistic sin, Malcolm also seems to be guilty."


Rena Korb, Critical Essay on The Journalist and the Murderer, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

J. Anthony Lukas

In the following review, Lukas calls The Journalist and the Murderer "a work of inspired quackery," and asserts that Malcolm projects her own interests onto all journalists.

Every reader of this magazine who isn't a moron or a pompous ass knows that his literary taste is utterly depraved.

There. Have I got your attention?

A year ago, writing in The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm fashioned a lead of comparable authority: "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."

The ensuing articles were particularly arresting because they purported to be not just another haymaker thrown from the disaffected ranks of Middle America but sophisticated critiques by a practitioner of the very craft under attack.

But a rereading of these articles and a new "afterword," now collected between hard covers, convinces me that Malcolm is writing from well outside the journalistic tradition—which accounts for both the strengths and weaknesses of this book.

The outsider's perspective enables Malcolm to plumb ironies that might be missed by workaday reporters. And there are some fine glancing insights: "The subject is Scheherazade. He lives in fear of being found uninteresting, and many of the strange things that subjects say to writers—things of almost suicidal rashness—they say out of their desperate need to keep the writer's attention riveted."

But Malcolm is rather like a clever chiropractor examining the practice of medicine. Finally, The Journalist and the Murderer is a work of inspired quackery.

Now a disclaimer. Since Malcolm has been widely accused of disguising a secret agenda, let me concede that I have long been a friend of Joe McGinniss, the target of her attack. On the other hand, for nearly 10 years, until he became editor of The New Yorker, my book editor was Robert Gottlieb, who is Malcolm's greatest patron and defender. With a foot in each camp, I'll try to walk a straight line.

Just who is this person who claims to have unveiled the dirty little secret of American journalism? She presents herself here as a reporter, explaining, "I have been writing long pieces of report-age for a little over a decade." But there is reason to suspect this appellation. For, as Malcolm herself warns us, "the 'I' character in journalism is almost pure invention." In her case, I think it is.

Malcolm has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965, exploring a limited range of subjects—food, Shaker furniture, photography, and psychoanalysis among them. So far as I can determine, she has never been on the staff of another publication—since the days that she reviewed for the student paper and helped edit the humor magazine at the University of Michigan. She never went through the apprenticeship—general assignments off a city desk—that has shaped the work habits of so many American reporters of my generation.

To be sure, her work bristles with acute intelligence and a certain showy erudition: Proust and Chekhov, Kokoshka and Gurdjiev, Grandcourt and Osmond, Beethoven bagatelles and Cellini bronzes, Raymond de Saussure and Frieda Fromm-Reichman. But her learning smells of the lamp, of long hours in a mittel-Europa study, abstracted from the street and the workplace.

No, it seems to me that the woman who lurks behind the "I" in The Journalist and the Murderer is less reporter than analysand.

Seasoned Professional

We all know the professional student, the fellow with the green book bag over his shoulder who hangs around a university year after year, accumulating credits and even degrees, unwilling to let go of the academic experience. There is also the professional analysand, the patient who has gone through years of psychotherapy, but who, even after the analysis has been "terminated," can't quite bring himself to let it go. Over and over, in his friendships, his marriage, his professional encounters, he goes on playing out the unresolved themes of his analysis.

Janet Malcolm is the daughter of a psychiatrist. She has undergone analysis. Two of her four books deal with psychoanalysis, and, as I reread them, it struck me that, for her, the relationship between reporter and subject is another version of therapist and patient.

If Malcolm is a professional analysand, she is one who seems to fantasize about reversing roles, about becoming the therapist. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, she drew a portrait of a pseudonymous analyst she calls "Aaron Green." In her first interview/session with Green, Malcolm detects a curious phenomenon. "He subtly deferred to me, he tried to impress me. He was the patient and I was the doctor; he was the student and I was the teacher. To put it in psychoanalytic language, the transference valence of the journalist was here greater than that of the analyst."

Over and over in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm sounds the same equation between subject and patient, e.g.: "The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter."

If Malcolm dreams about playing therapist, she often seems to drift into what analysts call "counter-transference," the projection onto the patient of characteristics of significant people from the therapist's own past.

Thus, Malcolm's assault on Joe McGinniss for the seduction and betrayal of his subject, Jeffrey MacDonald, struck many people as a reflection of her own concern about similar accusations leveled against her by Jeffrey Masson, the subject of her third book, In the Freud Archives. Both Jeffreys sued, claiming that they had been betrayed by the author in question, in MacDonald's case because McGinniss had allegedly misled him about his view of MacDonald's guilt in the murder of his wife and two daughters; in Masson's, because Malcolm allegedly misquoted and doctored material to show Masson, the onetime projects director of the Freud Archives, in a bad light.

What strikes me on this rereading is how Malcolm seems determined to universalize her own shortcomings, turning each into the journalistic equivalent of original sin. The first two McGinniss pieces seemed to be saying something like this: Look, if Masson accuses me of seduction and betrayal, doesn't he realize that's what all reporters do, and here's case far more egregious than mine to illustrate the point.

Then when commentators—notably John Taylor in New York magazine—pointed out the parallels of the Masson case (she hadn't mentioned it), Malcolm fired back in the afterword, first published in The New York Review of Books.

Although she denied that her McGinniss pieces were merely a "thinly veiled account of my own experiences," she also wrote: "The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer's most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c'est moi."

One waits in vain for the corollary: McGinniss, c'est moi. But Malcolm goes on to ridicule her journalistic critics for their thunderous discovery "that I had not 'made up' my story—that is, had not acted in good faith in presenting it as a new story…"

Fools, she seems to be saying, are you so psychonalytically illiterate that you don't see that all nonfiction writers project their desires and anxieties on their subjects just as we all carry around with us for life the emotional luggage of our infancy?

Malcolm is surely no fool; she knows the weakness of this argument. Indeed, in the first McGinniss piece, she ridiculed the testimony of William Buckley and Joseph Wambaugh about the legitimacy of telling "untruths" to a source. The "debacle" of their testimony, she wrote, "illustrates a truth that many of us learn as children: the invariable inefficacy of the 'Don't blame me—everybody does it' defense." It doesn't work for Malcolm any better than it did for Buckley and Wambaugh.

Even if her famous lead sentence is premeditated hyperbole, it represents a profound misunderstanding of American journalism. The principal failings of the craft are not seduction and betrayal, but laziness and coziness.

Straight from the source's mouth

In the early sixties, when I was the city hall reporter for the Sun in Baltimore, all local news ran on the back page. Each morning as assistant city editor would scrawl "city" on column one of the back page dummy and "state" on column eight, signifying that, absent some typhoon or tidal wave, the state house reporter and I were responsible for supplying the day's two major stories.

This meant that, at all costs, we had to cultivate our sources in hopes that a steady stream of zoning board appointments and updates on the tax rate would feed that voracious back page. And that meant that betrayal was the very last impulse we could afford to indulge. For in the rococo corridors of city hall a reputation for betrayal was a sure guarantee that the supply of news would dry up—and with it our professional aspirations.

No, the premium was on keeping those channels of information open, even at the risk of unseemly coziness with our sources. And, notwithstanding the pyrotechnics of Vietnam and Watergate, that, I fear, is still the priority of most American journalism.

If Malcolm's sweeping generalization usually misses the target, it may have a limited application to a tiny swatch of the journalistic battleground: investigative magazine pieces and books, one-time ventures in which the reporter knows he will never have to deal with his source or subject again.

In a fit of frankness, Drew Pearson once commented, "We will give immunity to a very good source as long as the information he offers us is better than what we have on him." If a source is himself so deeply implicated in the story that he threatens to become the story, he may be in jeopardy. For some reporters, it comes down to a calculus of whether they have more to gain by cultivating the source or "burning" him. Critics will charge that the reporter has betrayed his source in pursuit of self-interest; the reporter will say he has gone after the more important story. Often the reporter does both.

But in a journalistic sea awash with mindless puffery and boundless gullibility, sharks like these, prowling a roiled but tiny pool, are scarcely representative of the species.

Moving to Malcolm's second universal rule, the tendency of all nonfiction writers to imbue their subjects with their own desires and anxieties, I would concede that some reporters may be inclined to play out their own preoccupations in the dramas they cover. But reporters raised in the discipline of the city desk learn rather early to struggle against that temptation, and they usually prevail.

With the writers of long nonfiction books, the struggle is a bit harder. The process of writing a Best and the Brightest or a Bright Shining Lie is so consuming that, not suprisingly, the author is tempted to color his protagonists with some of his own obsessions. But, again, the best of our nonfiction writers struggle to separate the interior and exterior worlds.

"If she often reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the reporter's craft, Malcolm has nonetheless written a quirky, provocative outsider's book."

Not only does Malcolm almost willfully refuse to distinguish these realms, but she displays a lofty, indeed elitist, disdain for the plodding reporters who do. Joe Keeler, a reporter for Newsday who covered the MacDonald case, is characterized as "the unsubtle Keeler," with his "prepared questions and his newspaper-reporter's directness," and Malcolm doubts that his straightforward approach would draw from his subjects "the kind of authentic responses that I try to elicit from mine with a more Japanese technique."

Keeler is treated kindly in comparison to Joseph Wambaugh, the kind of blunt nonfiction writer Malcolm clearly regards as a vulgarian ("I'm not an intellectual," she elicits from him with her sushislicing technique, "I write from the guts"). His prose style is described as "like that of the charmless writing in small print on a baggage-claim check."

Malcolm's distance from the constraints of normal journalistic practice is most evident in her statement that McGinniss's decision to halt their projected series of interviews "freed me from the guilt" she might have felt for what she was about to do to him.

Step into my parlor…

Most reporters know the hot pulse of anger when somebody refuses to talk with you. Don't they know who I am, you say? I'll show them. You go to bed determined to wreak vengeance. But, most of the time, you wake the next morning and say: Nah, it's not worth it. If the impulse survives the night, then your editor is bound to remind you that people have a right not to talk with you and a professional doesn't punish them for it. Indeed, at every journalistic institution where I have worked, the tradition—not always lived up to—was that you leaned over backwards to be fair to the people who wouldn't talk to you, for fear that you could be accused of exactly what Malcolm now proudly admits. Since she was published by one of her best friends and edited by her husband, she wasn't restrained as she might have been by a less collaborative hand.

(Malcolm's pique at McGinniss's failure to continue their talks is all the more peculiar because she is not renowned for openness herself. By all reports, she does not give interviews. And when a fact-checker from this magazine called to ask whether her father was an "analyst," she said, "That's not true," neglecting to add that his job description, "psychiatrist," was one that most laymen would be hard-pressed to distinguish from "analyst," and one indeed that many analysts share.)

For just one moment, let us consider the McGinniss matter drained of the punitive spirit Malcolm brings to her task.

At Jeffrey MacDonald's explicit invitation, McGinniss entered into a contract to tell the truth about the case and to divide the proceeds of the resulting book, with MacDonald's share earmarked to pay his huge defense costs. McGinniss has been criticized for so-called "checkbook journalism," but I'm not sure that I find anything inherently wrong with such a deal.

Imagine if you will the hypothetical, but not unrealistic, case of a reporter who writes a book about a black man accused of raping a white woman during the civil rights struggle. If the reporter believed the man was unjustly accused, how many of us would condemn him for sharing the book's proceeds with the defendant in order to pay court costs? If one believed that Jeffrey MacDonald was innocent—as Joe McGinniss plainly did when he entered into the deal—is this instance so terribly different?

But if McGinniss subsequently discovered that, despite his contract to tell the truth, MacDonald had systematically lied to him and indeed cynically used him to spread a false version of the events, then who has seduced and betrayed whom?

The answer, I suggest, hinges on whether you think MacDonald lied to McGinniss and thus on whether you believe that he was guilty of murdering his wife and children or not. But curiously, although she slyly hints that she has doubts about his guilt, Malcolm explicitly refuses to make the hard march through the evidence in which the answer ultimately may lie.

MacDonald sends her mounds of such material—"trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports." Malcolm can't read such stuff. She sees words like "'bloody syringe,' 'blue threads,' 'left chest puncture,' 'unidentified fingerprints,' 'Kimberly's urine,"' and she adds the document to the unread pile. "I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald's guilt or innocense from this material."

Slogging through this gritty minutiae is all right for cloddish reporters like Keeler and McGinniss—and the judge, attorneys and jurors in the trial that found MacDonald guilty—but not for a woman of letters like Malcolm, adept at intuiting the inner life of her subjects.

Once McGinniss became convinced that MacDonald had both murdered his wife and children and lied to him about it, he confronted a difficult dilemma: how to hold his subject's confidence long enough for him to complete the research.

Some have argued with Malcolm that McGinniss simply made a self-interested calculation that he had more to gain by deceiving MacDonald than by "keeping faith" with him (which, in this case, I suppose would have meant informing him rather early on that he believed him to be guilty).

Knowing, liking, and respecting Joe McGinniss as I do, I regard his quandary as much more complicated: Whether MacDonald's betrayal in effect abrogated the spirit of their agreement, or whether he was still bound by some sort of obligation to his faithless "partner," and if so, what it was. Each of us would parse that problem differently.

I don't always recognize my friend in some of the supportive letters he wrote MacDonald, even as his views were shifting. I don't believe he had an obligation to inform MacDonald that he believed him guilty, but he might have been less ebullient in his letters of reassurance. McGinniss's mistake, I think, was in ever allowing himself to be drawn into a "friendship" with his subject, even when he still believed MacDonald to be innocent and saw him as under siege. Had he established a more detached stance from the beginning, he would never have had to worry about MacDonald discerning a shift in tone.

But what we are talking about here, I think, is not a defect in character but a matter of judgment. Whatever you believe McGinniss's mistakes to be, can they possibly justify Malcolm's scorched-earth expedition?

If she often reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the reporter's craft, Malcolm has nonetheless written a quirky, provocative outsider's book. Even when her grandiloquent airs drive one to distraction, Malcolm's sheer intelligence makes her worth attending to. Her ruminations about the reporter-subject relationship are well-timed, because they coincide with some self-criticism from within the craft about the reigning orthodoxy of nonfiction, the third-person narrative in vogue ever since John Hersey's Hiroshima and Capote's In Cold Blood.

We are witnessing an interesting return to the first person—in autobiography, memoir, travel writing, and much other nonfiction. This reflects, in part, a suspicion that the third person disguises too many hidden sources and secret agendas. The first person appeals to some because it seems to promise greater frankness and authenticity. But, bearing in mind the memoirs of certain generals and politicians, a friend of mine warns, "The greatest lies are told in the confessional." Malcolm's book may be another case in point.


J. Anthony Lukas, " The Journalist: A Source's Captive or Betrayer?" in Washington Monthly, Vol. 22, No. 4, May 1990, pp. 44-49.


Bruning, Fred, "Are Journalists Basically Liars?" in Maclean's, Vol. 102, No. 17, April 24, 1989, p. 11.

Friendly, Fred, Review in New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1990, Section 7, p. 1.

Lukas, J. Anthony, " The Journalist : A Source's Captive or Betrayer?" in Washington Monthly, Vol. 22, No. 44, May 1990, p. 44.

Seligman, Craig, "Brilliant Careers," (February 29, 2000).

Stimpson, Catherine R., Review in Nation, Vol. 250, No. 25, June 25, 1990.

Further Reading

Lakoff, Robin Tolmach, and Mandy Aftel, "In the Malcolm Archives," in Nation, December 16, 1996, p. 32.

The authors discuss Malcolm's body of work, finding common themes, issues, and approaches.

Shalit, Ruth, "Fatal Revision," in New Republic, May 26, 1997, p. 18.

This article provides more up-to-date information about the MacDonald murder case and enumerates suppressed evidence pointing to MacDonald's possible innocence.

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The Journalist and the Murderer

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