The Journalist and the Murderer. Janet Malcolm.

Malcolm, Janet. The Journalist and the Murderer. Vintage, New York. 1990. NF;12/16.

“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 Janet Malcolm begins her discussion of the relationship between journalists and their subjects. This began impressively enough for me that I downloaded it once the Kindle sample had run through, but as sometimes happens I regretted that after a few more pages.

Malcolm, following a first chapter full of theoretical material about journalism that continues the trenchant tone of that first sentence, describes having interviewed Joe McGinniss, himself a journalist, who had published a book about well-known convicted murderer, physician and serviceman Jeffrey MacDonald. McGinniss spent years involved in the defence in MacDonald’s murder trial, buddying up to him in that inimitable American tradition of golf, televised ball games, hard drinking and bragging about sexual exploits. McGinniss’s aggressive befriending was documented in dozens of letters to MacDonald.

Big shock when McGinniss’s book basically trashed MacDonald as a filthy coldhearted psychopathic liar and misogynistic killer. MacDonald, now in prison serving a life sentence for the murders, sued McGinniss and eventually got about US$300,000 as a settlement. McGinniss terminated Malcolm’s interviews because of concerns about what she might write about him.

Along the way Janet Malcolm has some interesting things to say about journalism and the nature of its subjects:

“…while the novelist, when casting about for a hero or heroine, has all of human nature to choose from, the journalist must limit his protagonists to a small group of people of a certain rare, exhibitionistic, self-fabulizing nature, who have already done the work on themselves that the novelist does on his imaginary characters – who, in short, present themselves as ready-made literary figures.” A special breed of narcissist who feels like a fiction character in other words.

And the journalist “…must do his work in a kind of deliberately induced state of moral anarchy.” Can’t leak, on pain of losing his subject as Malcolm did, the kind of book he or she has in mind. An interesting dilemma that most people who haven’t written a book about someone might not be aware of.

Malcolm’s book is about a journalist (her) rejected by a journalist-subject, which journalist had misled his subject and had to pay a price in the end. But the civil trial leading to paying the price, and the criminal trial leading to the journalist’s offending book (all of which occupies the majority of Janet Malcolm’s book) doubles as the only example of her book’s other content, which is introduced in its first sentence. We have to admire Malcolm’s criticism of her profession (she was admired by much better – to my way of thinking – self-critical writer Helen Garner in her recent book Everywhere I Look), but as somebody once said (incorrectly) about my book Forbidden Food somehow there isn’t quite enough in The Journalist and the Murderer to fill a book.

A related problem is that Malcolm loses the thread of her interesting analysis of the journalist-subject relationship through pursuing, I’d say padding, the also interesting narrative of the McGinniss-MacDonald defamation trial and the MacDonald murder trial. Or, maybe it’s the other way around and her focus was or should have been on the spectacular trials, and she lost that focus philosophizing about a fundamental ethical problem in her profession. Either way she doesn’t hold the reader’s (this one’s anyway) rapt attention combining, intertwining, and jumping back and forth between the legal-narrative and philosophic/moral packages of content. Somehow those two aren‘t coherently enough related.

The topic here is tangential to the enterprise of protecting free speech (called First Amendment in the US), and trying to work out what the exceptions should be. The left I guess would say hate, and the right might emphasize pornography and some of the defamatory garbage on the internet. Whatever we include it looks to me like the trust we’ve tended to place in the hands of news reporters and broadcasters doesn’t work once absolutely anybody has electronic access to public attention. Something we’ll have to deal with over time.

The book contains some pretty fair writing and a lot of interesting ideas, but as we say about a person with a frontal lobe brain injury, while there are at least six beer cans knocking around here, the little plastic thing that holds them together is missing. It’s lack of coherence, in other words, that wrecks this author’s otherwise worthwhile project.

For this book my usual content/style numeric scale doesn’t seem right. I’d say 8.5/10 for writing and intellectual content, but only 4/10 for overall impact.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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