Pulling all the punches

June 19, 1991

By Tracy Sorenson

The journalist and the murderer
By Janet Malcolm
Bloomsbury. 1991. 163 pp.
Paperback $17.95
Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

"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."

These are the opening lines in Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer. Besides the fact that Malcolm is badly in need of a good guide to non-sexist writing, they are the kind of extravagant sentences that get you hungrily reading on.

First impressions are hard to shake off. Helped by the pacy smoothness of this practised US journalist's craft, I read the thing in one sitting. Unfortunately, the book never gets as good again.

Malcolm's argument is built around the case of a journalist, Joe McGinnis, who fraudulently encouraged a convicted murderer to believe that he was writing a book that would prove the man innocent, in order to gain the man's confidence.

McGinnis' softening up of his subject went way beyond a sympathetic ear and drinks at the pub: he had inside access to the man's defence team during the time of his trial; he worked out a deal with him to split the proceeds of the book; he lived in the man's house for an extended period and, after the conviction, sent long, friendly letters to him in jail.

"There could not be a worse nightmare than the one you are living through now — but it is only a phase", wrote McGinnis to the convicted man, Jeff MacDonald. "Total strangers can recognise within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial ...

"It's a hell of a thing — spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey — not for long."

When it was finally published, McGinnis' Fatal Vision, the "inside" story of a crazed, psychopathic killer, was a best-seller. After some years of financial insecurity and the nagging sense he'd never again come up with anything as ground-breaking as his The Selling of the President (an expose of the 1968 Nixon campaign), McGinnis was riding high.

When the shattered MacDonald sued for defamation, McGinnis was confident nothing could touch him. Does a convicted murderer have a reputation that can possibly be damaged?

McGinnis miscalculated. When the jury heard the letters read out in court, it reacted with revulsion. Other writers — including the grand old man of right-wing US journalism, William Buckley — testified that a bit of fraud was all part of the game. It didn't do any good. McGinnis came out of it all looking like at least as big an arsehole as the man who was doing time for killing his wife and kids.

So far so good. We come away agreeing with Malcolm that there's certainly something morally indefensible about McGinnis' methods.

On the way, we get more insights — if we needed any more — into the gutter-level of human relationships in late 20th century USA: where everyone's on the lookout for their 15 minutes of fame; where a book about the murder of a pregnant woman and two children makes light holiday reading; where anyone with a bit of money can invest in the vastly satisfying experience of having a lawyer who flatters and listens; where everyone talks about love and friendship and no-one can be certain there's anyone they can trust.

But why does the "writer always betray"?

At this crucial point, Malcolm's analysis becomes facile. She offers nothing but the occasional ponder, before getting back to what, as a back-stabbing high-flying journalist up there with the best of them, she does best: deliver a good story.

In the end, her explanation is nothing more than a narrow description, a simple restating of the problem: every journalist betrays, because the story that finally appears is never the subject's story, but that of the journalist.

For Malcolm, this permanent, inevitable betrayal takes place against the background of a world which is morally complicated. The real world is a mess of "ambiguity, obscurity, doubt, disappointment, compromise and accommodation". It's the kind of relativism that lets people like her off the moral hook.

It seems beyond her comprehension that her society is not just complicated but fundamentally unjust.

Other than murderers, who are all these people "desperate" for the sympathetic ear of journalists? They are not all equally powerless "subjects". Subjects with money, power and influence tend to have a better run with journalists than the poor wretches who agree to interviews minutes after the death of a relative simply because they don't realise that they have the right to say no.

Australian media analyst Keith Windshuttle has pointed out that working-class people are more likely to get written up as victims of circumstance rather than as individuals or members of groups exercising control over a situation (trade union stories are the exception: their control over situations is often reported negatively).

And what about the journalist, as employee, who wants to write a sympathetic story but is vetoed by editors or publishers, or simply doesn't bother to write it because it doesn't fit neatly into the narrow band of acceptable possibilities in the commercial press?

What about committed journalism: Green Left for example, or the writings of Wilfred Burchett and John Pilger? For Malcolm, journalism in which the writer and the subject basically agree on what the story is isn't journalism; it's publicity.

Janet Malcolm's universe is just a bit too rarefied to have absorbed any such radical criticism. Instead, something that promises to pull no punches winds up pulling all of them. n

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