A 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.