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

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month. Members receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content.
Just click here.

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.

Errol Morris’ wonderful portrait of Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman

Elsa Dorfman. Photo copyright © 2010 by Tim Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Last weekend we had a chance to see “The B-Side,” Errol Morris’ wonderful documentary about the Cambridge portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. I know Elsa through her husband, Harvey Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator. She also once took our family’s picture for a Boston Phoenix article. Our son, Tim, took Elsa’s photo a few years ago when he was attending photography school.

Dorfman is warm and outgoing, and her photos reflect that. Now mostly retired, she is best known for her work with a large-format Polaroid camera that takes 20-by-24-inch photos. And though she is known for her portraits of artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, she’s also taken photos of literally hundreds of ordinary families who found their way to her studio. In the film, she comes across as intensely proud and self-aware, yet still the same person who once sold her photos out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

Here’s some backstory that the film does not explain: Several years ago Morris wrote a book about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor serving a life prison term after being convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and young children. The book brought Morris into contact with Silverglate and Dorfman, as Silverglate is a member of MacDonald’s legal team. As Morris’ book, “A Wilderness of Error,” clearly shows, MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and may actually be innocent. (I reviewed the book for BookForum.)

Morris is a master storyteller, and Dorfman is an ideal subject. As Richard Brody wrote recently in The New Yorker, Dorfman is “a remarkable presence, a cinematic character whose comments distill a lifetime of wisdom, self-awareness, frustration, and survivor’s pride.” Go see it.

Yes, ‘S-Town’ is voyeuristic. It’s also a brilliantly insightful look at the human condition.

Photo via Pixabay.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Warning: The following commentary contains spoilers.

As I was pondering “S-Town,” the podcast from “This American Life” that tells the story of a small Alabama town and one of its more colorful residents, an old line by the writer Janet Malcolm leapt into my head: “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.”

Somehow I was not surprised that someone else had the same thought. But whereas Gay Alcorn, writing in The Guardian, uses Malcolm’s observation to condemn the makers of “S-Town,” I think it’s more complicated than that. Malcolm was writing nearly three decades ago about a convicted murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who had no choice but to trust Joe McGinniss, the journalist-collaborator who betrayed him. Brian Reed, the host of “S-Town,” is operating in a far more egalitarian media environment, an age in which those who don’t like the way journalists tell their story will tell it themselves.

John B. McLemore, the brilliant, mentally ill protagonist of “S-Town,” may not have been entirely aware of what he was in for the day that he convinced Reed to investigate a murder that turned out not to have taken place. But McLemore never seems not to be in control of his own story — even after his suicide, even after Reed reveals some fairly shocking facts that McLemore himself had not been fully forthcoming about. Despite that, it is McLemore’s voice and sensibility that dominate. This is his story, even if it took Reed’s skill and nerve to tell it.

“S-Town” is the cleaned-up name for “Shit Town,” as McLemore called his hometown of Woodstock, Ala. McLemore is many things — a nationally recognized restorer of antique clocks; a highly intelligent liberal immersed in the right-wing culture of the white Deep South; a gay man whose sexual orientation is more or less an open secret. But it is his foul-mouthed, highly inventive monologues on subjects ranging from climate change to the alleged corruption of the local police department that capture our interest and draw us deeper into his damaged psyche.

Reed had pretty much set McLemore and Woodstock aside after his investigation of a murder evaporated amid a tangle of misunderstood facts and conspiratorial whispers. He returns after learning that McLemore had committed suicide in a particularly grotesque manner: he drank cyanide while ranting on the phone with the town clerk. Though McLemore obsessed over the details of global warming and the world financial system, and had long talked about killing himself, he’d given very little thought to what would happen after he died. He left no will, and he made no provisions for his elderly mother, who was suffering from dementia. Those oversights lead to the tensions that unfold over the final five hours of the seven-hour podcast.

“S-Town” isn’t really a story — or, rather, it is many stories, mostly unresolved. Mysteries fizzle. Plot lines lead nowhere. By the time it ends, we understand just how psychologically unbalanced McLemore was, especially during the last few years of his life. But Reed thumbs his nose at Chekhov’s rule that if a gun appears early in a story, then it must be fired before it ends. Did McLemore really bury a stash of gold out in the woods? Were the cousins up to no good or not? Why, after McLemore killed himself, did the town clerk not call his closest friends until after the funeral was over? Whatever became of McLemore’s “stepson,” Tyler Goodson? We never really learn.

But these are mere details. What makes “S-Town” riveting is the way Reed develops the characters of Woodstock, and especially of McLemore, peeling back more and more until there’s nothing left to show. It’s that unpeeling process that makes Gay Alcorn so uncomfortable. She writes:

Understanding another person is worthwhile; whether to make a seven-part podcast series about a person, when they never agreed to it, is another question, and one that Reed unfortunately does not address. The interviews, hours and hours of tapes left whirring away, were granted by a person who was not a public figure, a person Reed knew was mentally ill, and agreed to for an entirely different purpose. That requires an explanation.

Unlike Alcorn, I think “S-Town” is a lot more than a compulsively listenable story. Reed tells us something insightful about what it means to be a fully human, fully flawed person. Despite everything we find out about McLemore, some of it pretty disturbing, he is never stripped of his dignity. We are brought deeply into the life of another person and, in so doing, we learn something important about ourselves.

That is all the explanation needed. I think John McLemore would agree.

 Talk about this post on Facebook.

Joe McGinniss, author of ‘Fatal Vision,’ has died

I just learned that Joe McGinniss has died. McGinniss was the author of a very good book about Richard Nixon and an atrociously bad one about Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret physician who’s been in prison for decades after being convicted of killing his family — a case that I believe was deeply flawed.

Here is what I wrote for Book Forum in 2012 about Errol Morris’ “A Wilderness of Error,” which attempts to set the record straight.

The MacDonald case, journalism and the truth

https://i0.wp.com/www.bookforum.com/uploads/publication.000/id19920/cover00.jpgProsecutors, a judge, and a jury put Jeffrey MacDonald behind bars more than three decades ago for the murder of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. But according to Errol Morris, he’s been kept there by the power of narrative. “You can escape from prison, but how do you escape from a convincing story?” asks Morris in his new book, “A Wilderness of Error” …

Read the rest of my review in the new issue of Bookforum.

You can also read my article on an earlier book about the MacDonald case, Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost’s “Fatal Justice,” which appeared in the Boston Phoenix on April 7, 1995.