Janet Malcolm was a brilliant analyst of journalism’s ethics and morals

Janet Malcolm, at right. Photo (cc) 2013 by kellywritershouse.

Janet Malcolm, who died on Wednesday at 86, wrote perhaps our finest meditation on the ethics and morality of journalism. At The New Yorker, Ian Frazier has written an eloquent appreciation of her life and work.

“The Journalist and the Murderer,” a two-part essay published in The New Yorker that was later turned into a book, is ostensibly about a lawsuit filed by Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, against Joe McGinniss, who wrote about the case in his bestselling book “Fatal Vision.”

MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract because McGinniss — in order to maintain access — had continued to pretend that he believed in MacDonald’s innocence long after he’d concluded the former Army doctor really had murdered his wife and two young daughters. Malcolm argued that was no different from what all journalists do.

We all know the opening line to “The Journalist and the Murderer”: “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 let me treat you to her lurid yet precise closing, less often cited, on the foolishness of those who let themselves be seduced by a journalist:

Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses — the days of the interviews — are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.

As

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No. In fact I had hoped to be able to say — since the judge kind of cheated me out of my opportunity to be redirected — Dan [Daniel Kornstein, the defense lawyer] said I had time to be redirected — then Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions so that — the judge just let him go on and on — and then finally there wasn’t really time because I had to catch a plane at a certain hour. However, the material I gave to Kornfeld, was that having looked at all this and having slept on this material the night after my first appearance at trial, I had a kind of insight, if you will, that the four intruders represented, psychologically speaking, the only truthful thing that MacDonald had told — that there were really four intruders — but, of course, they weren’t exactly as he depicted them — but there were four people who intruded upon the hedonistic — and — life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald — and four people who, you know, intruded into his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father, namely Colette, Kristy, Kimberly, and the unborn son. In my text I rendered this as: No. In fact — and this, too, was something I wasn’t able to say in court, since Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions and I had to catch a plane — the four intruders who MacDonald claimed were responsible for the murders represented the only truth, psychologically speaking, that he told. There really were four people who intruded on the hedonistic life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald: the four people who intruded on his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father; namely, Colette, Kristen, Kimberly, and the unborn son.

And here is how Malcolm edited the quote for publication:

No. In fact — and this, too, was something I wasn’t able to say in court, since Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions and I had to catch a plane — the four intruders who MacDonald claimed were responsible for the murders represented the only truth, psychologically speaking, that he told. There really were four people who intruded on the hedonistic life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald: the four people who intruded on his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father; namely, Colette, Kristen, Kimberly, and the unborn son.

Quite a difference. Malcolm defends her method on the grounds that spoken English is impossible to render in written English except with extensive editing, but that it should remain true to what the person actually said. “The idea of a reporter inventing rather than reporting speech is a repugnant, even sinister, one,” she says, all the while insisting that’s not what she’s doing.

But most of us were trained on the AP Stylebook, which takes a rather different view of what constitutes an accurate quote: “Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution.”

William Zinsser, in his classic book “On Writing Well,” includes a useful discussion of the issue ranging from Malcolm to the legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who took considerable liberties with what people told him. Zinsser’s verdict: “I know that it’s just not possible to write a competent interview without some juggling and eliding of quotes; don’t believe any writer who claims he never does it. But many shades of opinion exist on both sides of mine.”

I agree with Zinsser. When I’m writing longer pieces, especially books, I do some compressing and editing, but I would not go nearly as far as Malcolm. If a person is that inarticulate, well, that’s what indirect quoting is for.

I also disagree with Malcolm that what we do is “morally indefensible.” The idea that every interview is a con, and that our job is to smile and let our subject think we’re on their side before we plunge in the knife, is offensive and wrong. The value in Malcolm’s observation is that it makes us think about what we do so that we can be better journalists and — dare I say — better human beings.

By the way, I have long been convinced that Jeffrey MacDonald’s murder trial was grossly unfair and that he might even be innocent. Years ago I reviewed “A Wilderness of Error,” Errol Morris’ book about the MacDonald case, for BookForum. Morris is withering in his assessment of McGinniss; but he was frustrated with Malcolm, who was someone he admired, for failing to grapple with the possibility that MacDonald had not committed the monstrous crime of which he was convicted. You can read my review here.

One thought on “Janet Malcolm was a brilliant analyst of journalism’s ethics and morals

  1. My gut take: something was off with her as a person. Obtrusively full of herself, a writer who used glib self-awareness and inauthentic, faux-modest self-consciousness as a guise and deflection shield all the time. Her reporting was always wrapped in a see-how-thoughtful-I-am-being / ‘I know the world of psychology so you can trust me and my insights into character’ shtick that to me indicated a truly strange presentation. Deaf and pretty profoundly cynical but under this guise of warm, sympathetic knowingness.
    I am looking for the text where someone, maybe the murdered wife, had called JMacDonald a bug or some such endearment and then later on the projecting Malcolm reports her madeup insight about ‘the insect terminology indicated’ yada yada.
    Can’t find it yet, am probably myself distorting and partly misdescribing it, but not misunderstanding it, I think. There are other such.

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