The Journalist and the Murderer

Journalist and MurdererA few nights ago, I rewatched the movie Almost Famous, a favorite that I hadn’t seen in years. The movie tells the story of William Miller, a teenage journalist who follows an up-and-coming band for months in order to write a story for Rolling Stone. He joins them on the bus, at parties, and for all the backstage drama. Even though they know he’s “the enemy,” they end up treating him as a friend. And then he writes the story…

I kept thinking of that movie as I read this book by Janet Malcolm. Journalist Joe McGinnis had embedded himself with the defense team for accused (and later convicted) murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. He attended strategy sessions, went for runs with MacDonald, and seemed to all appearances to be a friend. MacDonald knew he was writing a book about the case, but he assumed the book would be favorable to him. When the book, Fatal Vision, was published in 1983, MacDonald was shocked to learn the McGinnis believed him guilty of murdering his wife and two children. And he sued McGinnis for fraud and breach of contract, claiming that McGinnis misled him.

In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm treats the case against McGinnis as a exemplar of the tricky line a journalist must walk when dealing with a subject. She opens with these words:

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. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about making a living.

I’m not sure I buy her categorizations of journalists’ rationalizations, but the charge of treachery? I can see that. It can seem like treachery for a subject to learn that the friendly listener wasn’t so friendly after all. Stillwater, the band that young William reported on in Almost Famous felt betrayed when their “private” conversations in his presence could become public knowledge. But a journalist’s duty to the reader is to be honest, to tell the story as it presents itself.

The question this book explores is that of the journalist’s duty to the subject. Is the journalist required to reveal what he or she is thinking during the investigation? Is it acceptable to outright lie to win the subject’s confidence?

McGinnis and MacDonald had a contract with MacDonald through which MacDonald would receive a portion of the book’s advance and royalties in exchange for giving McGinnis full and exclusive access and a promise not to sue for libel. Malcolm does not let on just how unusual this kind of deal is, noting only that another writer would find this profit-sharing scheme unacceptable. As a reader, I’m extremely dubious and hope that most journalists would run from this kind of arrangement. Surely it isn’t the norm? It seems to break so many lines and I have to wonder how representative the McGinnis case is of journalism as a whole.

Another issue with McGinnis’s case is that he didn’t just keep quiet about his own opinions or even just fail to correct MacDonald’s assumption that he was friendly to the case. When MacDonald was convicted—after McGinnis had decided he was guilty—he wrote letters with lines like this:

There could not be a worse nightmare than the one you are living through now—but it is only a phase. Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial.

I was, I have to admit, shocked at reading some of his letters, knowing he believed he was writing to a man who killed his wife and two small children. Perhaps that belief made him feel it was acceptable to lie. Perhaps he felt he had to be so extreme in his expressions of good will in order to keep the story.

I had a hard time feeling sympathy for McGinnis after reading the letter excerpts, but Malcolm largely keeps her precise views on McGinnis to herself, leaving the impression that McGinnis crossed a line without also suggesting that MacDonald’s suit has merit. She talks with other journalists who observe that honesty to the subject is not required but who also hint that McGinnis might have gone too far. Yet she also seems to recognize the allure of the story and the reason McGinnis strung MacDonald along so thoroughly and for so long. Also, even McGinnis’s words went too far, the idea that a journalist must share his or her vision of the story with its subject is even more troubling to me than the idea that a journalist might mislead that subject in the name of truth. It is a tricky dilemma.

These questions have been in the news quite a lot lately. I’d been wanting to read this book for a long time, but I was reminded of it when Buzzfeed recently recommended it to fans of the Serial podcast. Much of the conversation around Serial centers on reporter Sarah Koenig’s own relationship with Adnan Sayed, convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend years ago. Perhaps even more pertinent to this story is the recent debacle involving Rolling Stone’s failure to fact-check their story on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. There, the reporter let the subject have control over the story in a way that ultimately did not serve the story or its subject well. If there was any truth to the story, fact-checking could have cleared up discrepancies without damaging it so utterly. This is why a journalist’s ruthlessness can be a good thing, even for the object of that ruthlessness.

I enjoyed this book because I’m fascinated by the questions it explores. I worked briefly as a newspaper reporter years ago, although I was writing mostly fluffy features at a community paper and tended to be far too non-confrontational to be as good at the job as I would like. I’m also generally interested in questions of truth and perceptions of truth and ways we arrive at the truth. Some of the authors Malcolm interviews get into that question in interesting ways, making distinctions between lies and untruths, for example. I’m also intrigued by the justice system and aggrieved at how badly it sometimes seems to work. (I’m adding some of the comments in this book to my mental list of reasons smart people shouldn’t try to get out of jury duty unless it’s absolutely necessary. Seriously. It’s a civic responsibility.)

As fascinating as I found this book, I don’t think it’s nearly as good as Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, about the challenges of documenting the lives of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Malcolm quotes extensively from letters and court documents, and she interviews several people involved in the trial, but the story gets repetitive, and its organizational scheme wasn’t entirely clear to me. I also longed for more context—more examples of other cases and not yet another mention of In Cold Blood. If the relationship between MacDonald and McGinnis is typical, I’d like to know that. And if it isn’t, I’d like to know that, too. I think it’s not at all typical, which may lessen its value as the test case Malcolm is making of it. The fact that the book is under 200 pages and thus a quick read made its flaws forgivable, but it’s not as good as it could have been.

Fatal Vision was actually one of my first—if not my very first—exposure to the true crime genre. I remember watching the miniseries. My dad had a copy of the book, and although I don’t think I read it all the way through, I remember poring over the floor plans of the crime scene. I had no idea until recently that it was a subject of such controversy. As Priscilla at The Evening Reader noted in her review, this book does not address the question of MacDonald’s guilt or innocence in anything but a tangential way. Malcolm’s choice of emphasis suited me, but I may check out Morris’s book as well.

I’ve said in the past that if I have a guilty reading pleasure, true crime may be it. But the best true crime raises questions about how we understand and arrive at justice and truth. It’s hard to feel guilty about thinking seriously about these issues, and smart true crime that digs into the questions is worth my time—and maybe yours too.

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21 Responses to The Journalist and the Murderer

  1. Richard Gilbert says:

    Very interesting review of a book that has long intrigued and vexed me. Malcolm tars journalists with a devoted brush, begging the question: what about every other human interaction? Do we really mean it when we say good morning or ask someone how it’s going? What about almost everyone who makes nice with a despised coworker or two for the sake of workplace harmony? What of the salesman who loathes his company’s biggest customer but doesn’t let on?

    The point is that all human interaction involves role playing, often complex, while everyone’s relentless private judgments are hidden. The journalist does withdraw and upon reflection publishes his gossip. That’s a difference, perhaps, but if he’s compromised it is a matter of degree, not of kind, by and large, from the rest of us.

    • Teresa says:

      That is an interesting question. It’s certainly true that journalist/subject interactions aren’t the only ones with agendas. And with the journalist/subject relationship, that agenda is known, at least in part, even if the specifics of what the journalist is planning remain hidden.

  2. Allie says:

    What a brilliant review – I’d never heard of this book before, but I’m noting it down as one to read next year, along with The Silent Woman. I’d never been at all interested in the true crime genre, but also got caught up in the Serial podcast (along with everybody else, I know..) and, also along with everybody else, am now searching around for similar things to read and listen to. Besides In Cold Blood, as you mentioned..!

    I have a feeling that I’ll be scrounging around in this genre for a while though, now..

  3. This was just fascinating to read and exactly the type of review that keeps me enthralled with the book blogging community.

    It also reminded me of someone whose work may interest you – Leslie Jill Patterson. She visited my uni to speak with students last semester. She works for public defenders to build a bio/background of indigent men and women on death row prior to sentencing. Sometimes she works on these for years – becoming well acquainted with these (mostly) men and their (always) horrific backgrounds and stories. Her talk was intriguing and instantly came to mind when I read this.

    I need this book!

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you, Jenn! Patterson’s work sounds really interesting—and important. Reading Dead Man Walking years ago convinced me that so many of the people on death row were in some way victims, even when they’d committed horrible crimes that warranted serious punishment.

  4. litlove says:

    I like Richard’s point, that’s a very good one. Though I came here to recommend Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. It’s a brilliant expose of what happens regularly in newspaper reporting, and it denounces the sort of appalling ethics and outrageous inaccuracy that goes on daily. The deal the journalist made in Malcolm’s account is a very reasonable one by comparison. I think the problem is one of nonfiction fundamentally (and you’re right, Malcolm hits the nail on the head better in The Silent Woman), which is that life has multiple truths, and our own experience of an event is very different to its outside appearance. Plus we are able to lie to ourselves so seamlessly and unconsciously that it is often a horror to be faced with an external perspective on things we have lived through. And those on the outside are too quick to judge without knowing the context or the history for an event. Journalism will always come unstuck when it’s a matter of character or motivation or intent and a hypothesis is all that can be constructed. However, it mostly comes unstuck because no one let the facts get in the way of a good story. I read Nick Davies and have since had trouble believing half of what I read in the news.

    • Teresa says:

      Malcolm makes a point in this book that if you look at the evidence in the murder case, you can find a story that supports MacDonald’s guilt or one that supports his innocence. It depends largely on what you’re looking for. I think that often happens with reporters. The Rolling Stone story is a good example of that. From what I understand, the reporter was looking for a particular kind of story and didn’t examine it thoroughly enough when she found it. (If the essentials are true, thorough examination could have cleared up the problems without wrecking the essential truth of the story.)

      And thanks for that recommendation. One of my favorite podcasts, On the Media, often does stories looking at how news stories develop, and listening to it has heightened my skepticism about a lot of what I read and hear.

  5. Thank you for the great review and for your comment regarding jury duty. It makes me cringe whenever I hear someone bemoaning having to appear for jury duty (which is about 99.9% of the time the subject is brought up). I’ve wanted to participate my entire adult life – I’m now in my fifties – and was disappointed every time my group was dismissed.
    Then low and behold, I hit the jackpot. Federal grand jury. We were presented many different cases by federal prosecutors from the FBI, IRS, Homeland Security, etc., and voted accordingly, based on federal guidelines, on whether or not there was enough evidence to indict someone for a federal crime. Grand juries don’t determine guilt, just if the prosecution has enough evidence to proceed with a case. It was interesting, complicated, fun, educational, emotional, and if I could, I’d do it all over again!

    • Teresa says:

      It always makes me sad when people talk about wanting to get out of jury duty. I know it’s a hassle, but it’s such important work. I’ve served once, in a civil trial, and while it wasn’t the most fascinating trial (and it fact was sometimes deadly dull), I learned more about how the system works and felt good about serving. I’ve gotten a summons twice since and would have been glad to do it again.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You probably know that the story of “Almost Famous” is based on Cameron Crowe’s actual experience traveling with the Allman Brothers on tour and writing about their internal squabbles for Rolling Stone. Needless to say, the band was not thrilled with Crowe’s article when it appeared!

    McGinnis was a bit of a shameless promoter (remember when, with much fanfare, he rented the house next to Sarah Palin’s?). He made it seem that he went into the MacDonald case wholeheartedly believing in the man’s innocence but gradually came to feel otherwise as he was writing, but I suspect he was convinced of MacDonald’s guilt all along, but thought his slow realization of guilt would make a better story.

    • Deb says:

      Don’t know why that showed up as anonymous–it’s from me, Deb.

    • Teresa says:

      I knew the movie was based on Crowe’s experiences but couldn’t remember which bands it was about.

      I had forgotten about the Palin thing. That really does seem like a journalist setting himself up as the enemy! I read his response to Malcolm’s book, which is on his website (http://www.joemcginniss.net/the-1989-epilogue), and although he made some good points, I wasn’t impressed. I think he misconstrued some of Malcolm’s arguments and then he stooped to make a misogynistic point of his own.

  7. Aaaaand now I want to watch Almost Famous again. That is such a good movie. I basically always want to watch it.

    I agree with you that this didn’t measure up to The Silent Woman. I think I prefer Janet Malcolm in her more literary biography metier than anything else. I like her essays nearly always, but of her books, Two Lives and The Silent Woman are easily my favorites. The Crime of Sheila McGough is a hot mess.

    • Teresa says:

      I still want to read Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and if it’s as good as this, it’ll be good enough. But I’ll hope for something as compelling as The Silent Woman. If it doesn’t measure up, I may stick to her literary bios.

  8. priscilla says:

    This post is terrific and everyone has covered so much interesting ground in the comments! I have to admit I have currently set aside A Wilderness of Error to finish something else, but I hope to return to it in the new year. And I am happy to hear that I’m not the only one whose guilty pleasure is well-written true crime. This has nothing to do with the journalist/truth angle, but I also recommend Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate by Ginger Strand. It takes a deep look at the economic roots of crime, in addition to the ways mobility increased possibilities for people with certain…proclivities.

    • Teresa says:

      If you do return to A Wilderness of Error, I’ll be interested to know what you think. I read several articles about the case after finishing this review, and the case against MacDonald seems awfully strong.

  9. Deb says:

    Another excellent true crime book is LOST GIRLS by Robert Kolker, which is about the five young women whose bodies were found on an isolated strip of Long Island beach. What’s interesting about Kolker’s book is his focus on the victims and the lives they led. That’s partly because the murderer has never been found, but also partly because the victims–all of whom were escorts who met their clients through internet ads–were of the occupation, class, and gender that tends to get short shrift when crime victims are being considered.

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