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.

The AP will no longer publish the names of suspects charged with minor crimes

The Associated Press, in a long-overdue move, has announced that it will stop reporting the names of suspects who are arrested and charged with minor crimes. The worldwide news agency says that not only do those names lack newsworthiness but the lack of follow-up means that it would never be reported if they were acquitted. John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, writes:

These minor stories, which only cover an arrest, have long lives on the internet. AP’s broad distribution network can make it difficult for the suspects named in such items to later gain employment or just move on in their lives.

The AP will also “stop publishing stories driven mainly by a particularly embarrassing mugshot,” he adds.

Apocalypse now: When political fervor turns religious

Painting by Frederic Schopin (1804-1880) depicting the First Crusade — “Battle delivered under the walls of Antioch between the crusaders led by Bohemond and the army of Karbouka, general of the Sultan of Persia, June 1098” (via Time.com)

In the spring of 2016, as it was beginning to look like Donald Trump might actually win the Republican presidential nomination, I attended a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School by Michael Ignatieff, a prominent Canadian politician and academic. He was appalled by Trump’s rise, as were we all. But I was struck by his peculiarly Canadian analysis.

“Politics,” he said, “should be boring.”

Read the rest at GBH News.

Two Globe copy editors are retiring

A couple of stalwarts on the Boston Globe’s copy desk are retiring. The following is an email to the staff from Mary Creane, the Globe’s senior assistant managing editor for production. The last line is key: “We will be filling both jobs.” What follows is the text of her email, which someone forwarded to me a little while ago.

Hi All

Bob Scherer-Hoock has decided to hang up his pica pole, proportion wheel, and non-repro blue pen (look them up).

Bob has been a rock on every iteration of the copy desk for many years. He helped with the implementation of four (maybe five) content management systems and still finds ways to make Methode do things that baffle many of us.

If he has touched a story, it has come out better. If he has laid out a page, it is uncluttered and clean.

We will miss his skills, but also his dry and penetrating wit and his compassion.

Bob’s last shift with us is July 8.

ALSO

John Harrington is leaving us as well. John has been a stalwart on the desk with a speciality in Business and Boston.

He knows where everything is in Boston and can tell you where to eat and what to get when you get there.

Stories edited by John are more clear and have fewer extraneous words than when he started.

We will miss his broad knowledge of the city and its history as well as his humor and haikus.

John’s last shift with us is July 15.

We will find a way to say goodbye properly, in the meantime, ask Bob all your Methode questions now and get John to give you a dining recommendation….

We will be filling both jobs.

 

SJC rules that deception in recording someone does not violate the law

Joe Curtatone. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Somerville Media Center.

The state Supreme Judicial Court on Monday issued an important — and, to me at least, surprising — clarification of the Massachusetts wiretapping law, ruling that it’s not necessary to obtain someone’s consent before recording them. All that’s needed, the court said, is to inform the second party that they’re being recorded. That doesn’t change even if the person making the recording lies about their identity. Here’s Travis Andersen’s account in The Boston Globe.

The case involves Kirk Minihane of Barstool Sports, who in 2019 recorded an interview with Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone by claiming to be Globe columnist Kevin Cullen. Minihane then played the interview on his podcast. Curtatone sued, arguing that he would not have agreed to being recorded if he had known he was speaking with Minihane rather than Cullen. Justice Frank M. Gaziano writes:

Minihane did not secretly hear or record the challenged communication within the meaning of the act, because the plaintiff knew throughout the call that his words were being heard and recorded. The identity of the party recording the communication or, indeed, the truthfulness with which that identity was asserted is irrelevant; rather, it is the act of hearing or recording itself that must be concealed to fall within the prohibition against “interception” within the act.

And here’s Gaziano’s conclusion:

Because Minihane did not secretly record his conversation with the plaintiff, the challenged recording does not fall within the statutory definition of an “interception” within the meaning of the Commonwealth’s wiretap act. The plaintiff thus has not made factual assertions sufficient to state a cause of action upon which relief can be granted.

The first indication of where the case might be headed came earlier this year, when the ACLU and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a brief in support of Minihane and Barstool.

Massachusetts has often been described as a “two-party consent” state when it comes to recording conversations. But even before Minihane recorded Curtatone, it was clear in some legal circles that the word “consent” was misleading. For instance, here is an explanation of the law published several years ago by the now-defunct Digital Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society:

Massachusetts’s wiretapping law often referred to is a “two-party consent” law. More accurately, Massachusetts makes it a crime to secretly record a conversation, whether the conversation is in-person or taking place by telephone or another medium…. Accordingly, if you are operating in Massachusetts, you should always inform all parties to a telephone call or conversation that you are recording, unless it is absolutely clear to everyone involved that you are recording (i.e., the recording is not “secret”). Under Massachusetts’s wiretapping law, if a party to a conversation is aware that you are recording and does not want to be recorded, it is up to that person to leave the conversation.

Even after Monday’s SJC ruling, the law in Massachusetts remains unusually strict. According to the law firm Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, 38 states plus the District of Columbia merely have a “one-party consent” law. Since the person making the recording has obviously given their consent, that means recording someone secretly in those states is legally permissible.

I tell my students that if they want to record an interview, whether in person or by phone, to ask for the subject’s consent. Then, after they turn on their record, tell them that they’re now recording and ask if that’s all right. That way, not only do they have the interview subject’s permission, but they have that permission on record. Minihane’s victory doesn’t change the ethics of recording someone without their knowledge.

One aspect of Monday’s ruling worth thinking about is that two-party consent, even under a looser definition of “consent,” can make it harder to engage in certain types of investigative reporting. Minihane obviously was just recording Curtatone for entertainment purposes. But undercover reporting, though less common than it used to be (thanks in part to the Food Lion case), can be a crucial tool in holding the powerful to account.

In Massachusetts, it remains illegal for a reporter to secretly record someone. The SJC’s decision doesn’t change that.

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Pulitzer notes: A big win for the Globe; plus, ownership matters, and recognizing Darnella Frazier’s courage

Journalism is a field overrun with prizes. But the Pulitzers still matter — and the recognition shown The Boston Globe on Friday was impressive.

As you no doubt have heard, five current and former Globe journalists won in the Investigative Reporting category “for reporting that uncovered a systematic failure by state governments to share information about dangerous truck drivers that could have kept them off the road, prompting immediate reforms.” That’s the first time the Globe has been recognized for its investigative work since it won the Public Service Award in 2003 for its coverage of the pedophile-priest crisis in the Catholic Church.

The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing for its commentary on a zoning battle in Newton, and its sister publication Stat was a finalist in Breaking News for its coverage of COVID-19. One of the three Stat finalists was Sharon Begley, who died of lung cancer earlier this year.

In a video accompanying the Globe’s own coverage, editor Brian McGrory addressed a topic of vital importance — the role of a regional news organization in the powerful to account. Here’s part of what he said.

I was asked last night at a panel I was on about the lack of relevance, and how major metro newspapers are becoming decreasingly relevant in a really tough media age. And I thought about it for a minute, and I came to realize — not for the first time — I’ve been here 30-something years, and the Globe has never felt more relevant to the community than it does now. And all you have to do is look at the work we do day in and day out. The work that’s unfolding right now on the police department, on City Hall, on state government. Name a topic, and it’s every department firing on all cylinders.

Indeed, the Globe is driving the conversation on all of those stories, even amid fine work by other news organizations, including my friends at GBH News, WBUR, CommonWealth Magazine, The Bay State Banner, The Dorchester Reporter, DigBoston, local TV stations and others.

Ownership matters

Unfortunately, the Globe is unusual by the standards of 2021. Take a look at the list of Pulitzer winners. Overwhelmingly, the prizes went to news organizations with solid ownership. The Globe, of course, has been owned for the past seven-plus years by John Henry and Linda Pizzuti Henry, who have steered it to profitability and stability while maintaining the paper’s reporting capacity.

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis is owned by another wealthy business person, Glen Taylor, who has revived a paper that was on the ropes not too many years ago. The Tampa Bay Times is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute — a situation that hasn’t been entirely happy, but that has resulted in more robust coverage than if it were owned by a for-profit chain.

The Marshall Project is a well-funded nonprofit. The New York Times, though a publicly traded company, has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. The Atlantic is largely owned by Laurene Powell Jobs, who inherited the late Steve Jobs’ fortune. BuzzFeed News is run as much for love as for profit.

I could go on, but you get the picture. All across the country, newsrooms at regional and local newspapers are being ravaged by corporate chains and hedge funds. The Pulitzers demonstrate, as I have said over and over, that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Speaking truth to power

There had been some buzz in recent weeks that a Pulitzer ought to be awarded to Darnella Frazier, the then-17-year-old who turned her smartphone camera toward George Floyd as he was being murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin.

The Pulitzer judges were thinking the same thing. Frazier was awarded a Special Citation “for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”

Rarely has a Pulitzer been more deserved. But it will be for naught if that’s the end of it. Frazier’s work should inspire people everywhere to stand up for what is right. Without her bravery, Chauvin might still be on the beat, terrorizing the citizens of Minneapolis.

Mere months after his suspension, Jeffrey Toobin is back at CNN

Jeffrey Toobin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Gage Skidmore.

Jeffrey Toobin, who was suspended seven months ago after he was caught masturbating on a Zoom call, is back at CNN. Lukas I. Alpert reports for The Wall Street Journal that the legal analyst appeared on TV Thursday afternoon with anchor Alisyn Camerota. He called his behavior “deeply moronic and indefensible” but repeated his longstanding claim that it was accidental. “I didn’t think I was on the call,” he said. “I didn’t think other people could see me.”

Well, now. What are we to make of this? In addition to his CNN perch, Toobin was a high-profile writer for The New Yorker, and it was during a meeting with colleagues at the magazine that he decided to fondle himself. The New Yorker fired him. There have been no public signs that there’s been any thought given to reversing that decision.

Although Toobin’s quotes from his CNN appearance Thursday come across as contrite and sincere, he did say he thought his firing by The New Yorker was “excessive punishment,” which suggests that he still doesn’t get it.

I believe in second chances. The problem with Toobin is that his suspension — for truly appalling behavior — didn’t even last a year, and he’s picking up right where he left off rather than being asked to regain the viewers’ trust in a less visible spot. I will say that his commentary is first-rate.

Writing in today’s CNN “Reliable Sources” newsletter, Brian Stelter says, “There were a wide range of reactions to the news on Thursday afternoon. But by nightfall, I pretty much sensed that the social media conversation had moved on to other subjects.” That may be true, but I don’t think Stelter should take it as an indication that people are OK with it. Many, I’m sure, are disgusted.

Count me with Poynter media analyst Tom Jones, who writes, “Regardless of Toobin’s intentions and past history, this feels like something so egregious that it simply can’t be dismissed. Frankly, I’m stunned CNN brought him back.”

An argument for why the lab-leak theory of COVID’s origin remains unlikely

David Baltimore. Photo (cc) 2014 by Bob Paz.

Last week I wrote an analysis for GBH News on why the media dismissed the Wuhan lab-leak theory as the origin of COVID-19. I argued that the lab explanation got caught up in Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese racism and multifarious lies about the pandemic, compounded by some botched reporting of comments by Sen. Tom Cotton.

So I want to share with you two recent columns by Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, someone whom I really respect. The Times has a tight paywall, but you should be able to access both of them by switching browsers after you read the first.

About a week ago Hiltzik examined the theory itself and concluded that, though it couldn’t be ruled out entirely, the scientific consensus remains that COVID almost certainly jumped from animals to humans outside the lab. He writes:

No one disputes that a lab leak is possible. Viruses have escaped from laboratories in the past, on occasion leading to human infection. But “zoonotic” transfers — that is, from animals to humans — are a much more common and well-documented pathway.

That’s why the virological community believes that it’s vastly more likely that COVID-19 spilled over from an animal host to humans.

Then, earlier this week, he reported that Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore was backing away from a quote he gave to former New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade in which he referred to genetic evidence that had been found as “the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.” Wade’s May 5 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists helped move the lab-leak theory to the center of the conversation. Hiltzik writes:

Baltimore told me by email that he made the statement to Wade, also by email, and granted him permission to use it in print. But he added that he “should have softened the phrase ‘smoking gun’ because I don’t believe that it proves the origin of the furin cleavage site but it does sound that way. I believe that the question of whether the sequence was put in naturally or by molecular manipulation is very hard to determine but I wouldn’t rule out either origin.” [Pardon me for not explaining “furin cleavage site,” but it’s related to the genetics of COVID.]

I think we have to regard both the lab-leak theory and animal-to-human transmission as possibilities, and we may never know the truth. But Hiltzik makes a powerful case that the animal-to-human explanation remains considerably more likely, and that it would be a mistake to regard the two explanations as equally plausible.

It’s time for the feds to stop hassling and spying on the press

FBI headquarters. Photo (cc) 2008 by zaimoku_woodpile.

It was a move reminiscent of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allowed federal investigators to spy on the reading habits of library and bookstore customers in the name of fighting terrorism.

Last week we learned that the FBI had subpoenaed USA Today in pursuit of Internet Protocol addresses and other data. The goal was to help the agency figure out the identities of people who had read a story last February about a Florida shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded. The subpoena specifically cited a 35-minute time frame on the day that the shootings took place.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Nikole Hannah-Jones update: It depends on what the definition of ‘pressure’ is

Walter Hussman Jr.

The latest installment in the Nikole Hannah-Jones saga is absolutely wild. Walter Hussman Jr., the University of North Carolina alumnus who endowed the journalism school to the tune of $25 million, is fighting back against reports that he exerted pressure on school officials and the board of trustees not to hire Hannah-Jones, who’s also an alum.

A quick recap: Hannah-Jones was offered the Knight Chair at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman (yes, it was named after him) School of Journalism and Media, a position that customarily comes with tenure. But after her appointment ran into trouble with the board of trustees, she was instead offered a five-year non-tenured appointment, an action that school officials can take without any involvement by the trustees. Hannah-Jones is the Pulitzer Prize-winning force behind The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which re-centers American history around slavery.

I’m not going to try to summarize this detailed piece by Joe Killian in NC Policy Watch. But this here is an eye-opening sentence regarding Hussman’s $25 million pledge: “Most of that money hasn’t yet been delivered, leading some to speculate Hussman felt he had leverage with which to pressure the school to abandon its plan to hire Hannah-Jones.”

Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, insists he did not try to pressure anyone and that he never suggested he wouldn’t come through with the money if he didn’t get his way. And there this classic back-and-forth involving an anonymous board member and Hussman:

“He’s completely outside this process and he’s contacting the people who are involved with financial giving over his concerns about university hires,” the board member said. “That’s throwing your weight around because you know you can exercise your influence, based on your gifts to the school. It is a threat. I don’t see how you can see that any other way.”

Hussman denies that. “That could have been inferred, but it was never implied,” he said.

Hannah-Jones is considering legal action. She has set today as the deadline for the trustees to vote on her tenure case. Otherwise, her lawyers say, she’ll move ahead with a lawsuit. Let’s hope the trustees take the opportunity to put this embarrassment behind them.

Finally: Three cheers for independent media. NC Policy Watch and The Assembly have been driving this story and deserve a lot of credit.

Previous coverage.