This week, I have the extreme pleasure of visiting the crew in Williston. Among the many great things about being up here with peers is finding some solitude in the form of air travel that afforded me time to read all of a slim tract called, “The Journalist and the Murderer.” I am not being hyperbolic when I say it knocked me off my feet. Here, read the first sentence for yourself:
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.
What follows is Janet Malcolm’s 1990 – that’s right, it’s 26 years old – account of MacDonald v. McGinniss. It didn’t ring any bells for me at first, but it was a much-discussed First Amendment case that brought some of the day’s most important writers and attorneys before a Los Angeles judge. Joe McGinniss was a well-known non-fiction author when he ingratiated himself to Jeffrey MacDonald, who was on trial for murdering his wife and kids years earlier while an Army doctor.
All of which is interesting, but almost immaterial to Malcolm’s important book. She’s interested in the relationship between McGinniss the author and MacDonald the subject, and her conclusion, stated right up front, is essential for anyone who wants to be an ethical journalist. …
McGinniss goes to great, cringe-inducing lengths to win the murderer’s good graces. He writes long, self-important letters in which he extols the triple-murderer’s virtues, saying he can’t believe those idiot jurors convicted MacDonald and so on. Eventually, he writes “Fatal Vision,” in which he says he came to know MacDonald did, in fact, murder his family. You can imagine how that surprised said murderer who let the author stay at his house, made him part of the defense team at trial and ultimately considered the writer his friend.
Which is where Malcolm comes in. There is so much food for thought in this 160-page book that was originally a two-part series in The New Yorker. You should really read it. But there are a few themes we can discuss here:
Non-fiction people as characters: Malcolm argues that writers usually make characters out of the real people that become their subjects, and that obviously leads them astray. Occasionally, as with Truman Capote’s luck with Perry Smith in “In Cold Blood,” the writer lucks up on someone truly interesting. More often, these real people aren’t all that interesting. When that happens, “The writer ultimately tires of the subject’s self-serving story and tells one of his own.” Elsewhere in the book, writer Joseph Wambaugh flatly states that he jazzes up his supposedly true stories for a more interesting telling. Malcolm argues it’s only natural and journalists do it all the time. I felt a tinge of self-recognition and would cop to some overly wrought descriptions of the people in my stories over the years.
The “dehoaxing” is painful: Ultimately, of course, these people whom we have charmed read our stories and every writer of non-fiction knows that can go south. Even if ours is a true telling it is likely not the way our subject views herself. MacDonald’s dehoaxing was particularly cruel. He didn’t know what was in the book until Mike Wallace read a damning passage to him in a “60 Minutes” interview. I’ve often wondered why so few of the hundreds of people I’ve written about through the years are people I would call friends. This is why.
The possibly imaginary difference between “lies” and “untruths:” The writer William F. Buckley was called to the stand to testify as to the non-fiction process. He made the distinction between telling outright lies to a source and allowing an untruth to waft in the service of the greater good – the book. He acknowledged that writers often get chummy with sources and pretend to agree with them in order to ingratiate themselves. “The priorities are to encourage the person you are writing about to tell you everything, and if that takes going down to the bar with him, you go down to the bar with him,” Buckley said under oath. Hmmm….
The love affair metaphor: Malcolm compares the writer-subject dance to a romance. Even if mature people know the rush of first love is likely to be dashed, they are smitten anyway. Writers and their subjects want to believe that each new dance will bring the real thing. “The journalist is no less susceptible to its pleasures and excitements,” she writes.
Is the problem is inevitable? Wambaugh thinks so. He says that if journalists want to do more than “interview people at a fire,” they have to cultivate relationships with sources and that means using the skills that make people like us. Malcolm puts it this way: “Unlike other relationships that have a purpose beyond themselves and are clearly delineated as such (dentist-patient, lawyer-client, etc.), the writer-subject relationship seems to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose. If everybody put their cards on the table the game would be over. A journalist must do his work in a kind of deliberately induced state of moral anarchy.”
I cannot recommend this book highly enough to other journalists. It is imperative that we peer into our souls and ask ourselves what we are really doing. Life is not so black and white as the print on paper would have you believe.