The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm Book 17 of #20booksofsummer20


Janet Malcolm starts as she means to go on with the opening lines of this strident and fascinating book.

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

So begins her exploration into the role of journalist and subject, or in this particular case, between journalist and murderer. The journalist of the title is Joe McGinniss and the murderer is Jeffrey MacDonald. In 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters. Before his trial began, he invited McGinniss to write a book on the case from the point of view of the defense team and allowed him full access to the case. McGinniss befriended MacDonald, to the point that MacDonald believed the resulting book would be sympathetic and champion his innocence. That book – Fatal Vision – did no such thing.  In 1984 MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract, claiming that he had been led to believe that Fatal Vision would show him as an innocent man when in fact McGinniss portrayed him as a guilty psychopath.

MacDonald had friendly and supportive letters from McGinniss sent over three years that backed up his argument, the jury agreed with him, and the case eventually settled out of court for $325,000. The journalist was portrayed as a trickster, one who never believed his subject was innocent, gained his trust and then betrayed him.

The question Malcolm raises is whether this kind of journalistic behaviour is ethical, or even moral, and does it become more complex when your subject is a criminal?

In this taut book, Malcolm explores the lawsuit from all angles, interviewing the lawyers, jurors and witnesses involved and even interviewing the killer himself. It is a knotty moral question. How far should a journalist go to get to the truth of a story? What is the truth of a story? If the subject of the story is a killer, do they still have the right to be treated fairly and openly regardless of their guilt in another case?

Malcolm includes trial testimony from two authors Joseph Wambaugh and William Buckley, who defend a journalist’s right to mislead a subject in order to unearth a story while, in an ironic twist, McGinniss breaks off ties with Malcolm and will not participate in her book fearful of how she will portray him.

Malcolm agrees with the jury and concludes that what McGinniss did was morally wrong. She feels that while he had an obligation to the ‘truth’ of his story, he was – more importantly – obligated to be truthful to MacDonald. She does however note that the relationship between a journalist and a subject is, at its heart, a fake one, where neither side portrays their true self, but instead does what they have to do to get the outcome they desire.

In a press interview, she has discussed the role of the journalist as being that of an actor;

this ‘I’ was a character, just like the other characters. It’s a construct. And it’s not the person who you are. There’s a bit of you in it. But it’s a creation. Somewhere I wrote, ‘the distinction between the I of the writing and the I of your life is like Superman and Clark Kent.

Malcolm concludes that there will always be a moral vacuum at the heart of the journalist/ subject relationship and even as she explores this particular case, she is well aware of her own role in the similar game she is playing.

When The Journalist and The Murderer first appeared in The New Yorker in March 1989, Malcolm was roundly dismissed by the majority of journalists who felt her approach was an attack on their right to present a story by whatever means necessary.

Many journalists also felt, probably fairly, that she didn’t properly highlight the distinction between working journalists and those who write a work of non-fiction which includes a financial contract with their subject in the form of royalties, which muddies the waters even further.

What Malcolm does in The Journalist and The Murderer, is to provide the reader with the chance to understand the often adversarial relationship that exists between the journalist and the subject, and to pull back the curtain on the fascinating and complex way in which journalistic stories are created.

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20 Books of Summer

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

21 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Sounds absolutely fascinating Cathy – and I know Malcolm’s writing is highly regarded. It’s such a complex subject, and it brought to mind Philippe Sands, who I’ve heard talk recently about his research into the Ratlines and the fates of many Nazis post-War. He’s talked to their children and been quite open about his attitude, which I think is very honest; and yet the children still seem to want to talk to him, even if they refuse to accept their parents were culpable. Human beings are very complicated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh that sounds fascinating. I work for a lot of ghostwriters and find what I hear of their relationships with their subjects interesting beyond belief – sometimes way more interesting than the subjects themselves! And Book 17 yay!


  3. A fascinating subject for a book. It’s easy to see where a journalist can lose their objectivity when writing about some people, or where they get too involved in the subject. It’s so important that journalistic integrity is maintained.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful review! I read this one last year and never got around to organizing my thoughts enough to review it. It’s such a thorny subject but an interesting one and I thought she explored it so well.


  5. As an ex journalist, and married to a former newspaper editor, I would find this book a fascinating read. It’s such a complex question. I’m assuming no money changed hands so McGinniss was not employed as a ghost writer as such. You could argue he was acting more as a journalist, keeping an independent attitude to his subject.

    I’m curious though how Malcom was able to interview jurors since their identity I thought was also kept private in UK, unlike in the US where they give interviews on tv and discuss what happened in the juror’s room


  6. Sounds fascinating. Not sure this could happen in the UK even today – I doubt whether a defence team would allow a journalist access. But in America it’s all about playing to the public via the press…


  7. Janet Malcolm is brilliant ❤️ I’ve been a fan ever since I saw her referenced by Helen Garner in an essay. This is such a thorny, difficult issue to unravel, I still can’t quite make up my mind where I stand…


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