By Jean Balchin 17/01/2018

‘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.’

This is the opening line of Janet Malcolm’s sharp, analytical book The Journalist and the Murderer. Published in 1983, the book still challenges journalists these days. Malcolm is a cunning, insightful journalist. Whether she tackles psychology, literature or the criminal justice system, her bluntness and controversial opinions have often alienated her from the journalistic community.

The Journalist and the Murderer tells the story of Jeffrey MacDonald, a narcissistic womaniser who was accused of killing his wife and two young daughters on 17 February 1970. Journalist Joe McGinnis was hired by MacDonald to write a book about his ordeal; MacDonald hoped the book would convince the world of his innocence. McGinnis was entitled to write whatever he wanted, “provided the essential integrity” of MacDonald’s life story was maintained. McGinnis thus became an official member of MacDonald’s trial team, and the two men became best friends, spending years together. MacDonald wholeheartedly believed that his friend’s book would help exonerate him.

Joe McGinniss in 1969. Wikimedia Commons.

When Fatal Vision was published in 1983, McGinnis painted MacDonald as a ruthless, cold-blooded psychopath who had massacred his family in a drug-induced rage. MacDonald, aghast and betrayed, sued McGinnis for fraud. The trial ended in a hung jury, with five of the six jurors siding with MacDonald, and the two settled out of court for $325, 000.

This is an excellent subject, for it is one at the heart of journalism itself. In my opinion, The Journalist and the Murderer is one all aspiring journalists should read. Malcolm closely scrutinises the practice of law, the practice of psychology, the practice of interviewing, researching and writing, as well as the nature of friendship.

However there was perhaps too much substance to the book –  I found myself getting a little lost at times. Given that there was no clear structure (chapters or the like), I found the interviews flowed into each other a bit. Malcolm used a variety of sources, including interviews with McGinnis, MacDonald, the prosecution and defence lawyers, members of the jury, as well as reviewing letters passed between McGinnis and MacDonald.

Structure and Methodology

There are no chapter or part separations to this text; it flows as a whole. This enables Malcolm to create a flow of information and discovery that gradually unfolds for the reader as it did for her during the research process. The book is thus composed of one interview followed by another, with conflicting opinions, conclusions and voices tumbling together, leaving the reader to decide for themselves where the blame lies. The processes of law, journalism, writing, characterisation, discover, understanding and judgement are all inextricable; part of a subjective whole.

Style and Expressive Skills

I found The Journalist and the Murderer to be a fascinating book. It is sharp and witty – a real page turner. I read it in practically one sitting. It certainly challenged me – as a journalist, I have been put in situations where I have had to pretend to be a sympathetic listener. I can’t say I’ve ever gone so far, deception wise, as McGinnis. After reading this book, I probably won’t.

Malcolm’s style is brash, bold and cunning. There is a sense of self-awareness to it. One doesn’t have to like it to appreciate it, although I certainly like it.

There is one aspect of Malcolm’s style I take exception with. She often makes broad, sweeping judgements. For example, consider her characterisation of the journalist as:

“A kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness.”

I understand the effectiveness and strength of this passage, but it’s not necessarily true. There are many kinds of journalism, and many, many journalists. Malcolm cannot categorically state that the brave foreign correspondent, or the fashion writer, or the court-reporter are corrupted or out to exploit their subjects.

Is this book a good reading experience?

I enjoyed reading this book. There are countless layers of irony and deception to The Journalist and the Murderer. Journalists seldom have straightforward motives, and in this case, the book comprises an unreliable narrator telling stories of unreliable narrators.

Malcolm’s book concludes with the notion that there is a very fine line between presenting oneself as a sympathetic listener and pretending to be a friend. In the case of McGinnis, he was wrong in wilfully deceiving MacDonald. Regarding the original heinous crime (MacDonald’s murdered family), Malcolm does not provide any conclusive proof or opinion regarding the guilt or innocence of Jeffrey MacDonald. The opinions and beliefs of everyone Malcolm interviews are never supported; her only absolute is that of ethical journalism. While no clear definition of ethics is laid out, Malcolm does assert that the ethics of journalism cannot be gratuitous or situational. Ultimately, a journalist’s code of ethics cannot and should not be dependent on one’s subjects or circumstances.

I’ll end this review with an excerpt from Malcolm’s book. The passage speaks for itself.

“The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him.  On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject”

This is a brilliant book, full of original and disquieting insights.